Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

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Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

The kids aren’t alright in the Howland Company’s raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock

Tim Dowler-Coltman. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

 

The Howland Company gets raw and apocalyptic with the Toronto premiere of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, directed by Gregory Prest assisted by Brittany Kay; opening last night in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Set in present-day Stockport, part of the Greater Manchester, UK area, we become flies on the wall of the abandoned upper library of a tuition-paying grammar school, which a group of seniors has taken over as their hang-out. Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid trying to find her way, meets the good-natured William (Cameron Laurie), who’s more than happy to offer hilariously helpful tips to navigating the school. William also introduces Lilly (and us) to the rest of the gang: the sociable Tanya (Kristen Zaza), officially tasked by the school with showing Lilly around; the domineering Bennett (James Graham) and type-A Cissy (Hallie Seline), who are a couple; the jock Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman); and the super intelligent, quiet Chadwick (Andrew Pimento).

William, who has an extremely poignant and unusual autobiography to share, is clearly crushing on Lilly, but she has eyes for someone else. Bennett is the class bully, with Chadwick as his prime whipping boy and some secret desires of his own; we see a brief moment of tenderness with his kid sister Lucy (Marleigh Merritt, who shares the role with Sophia Jin). Cissy has a photographic memory and barely studies for exams, but manages to get straight As—and is terrified of getting a lower grade. Nicholas is a gifted athlete, but doesn’t lord it over his schoolmates; he has a gentle, affable nature—and eyes for Lilly. Tanya is dealing with body image issues, expressing herself by adding colour to her look, and is just trying to fit in. The timid Chadwick is a science wiz, especially in physics—and he wears a jacket over his blazer to hide his school tie, which is different from the standard tie and sets him apart as a scholarship kid. Lilly, the daughter of a university professor who’s moved a lot, hides a self-destructive edge beneath a brave face exterior. The only adult we meet along this journey is the calm, steady Dr. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh).

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Hallie Seline & James Graham. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

The upper library hang-out becomes a microcosm of the school, which in turn becomes a microcosm of the world at large. All of these kids are bracing themselves, preparing in varying degrees and states of distress, for their upcoming mock exams, a litmus test for their finals later in the year. Facing a crucial transition point in their lives, these 17-year-olds are continuously bombarded with social, family, academic, socio-political and environmental expectations and pressures. And as the heat gets turned up, the space between them becomes a pressure cooker—and everyone’s going to explode.

In the program, the director’s remarks include a note on dialect from the playwright, expressing a desire for North American productions to use their own dialects; this means the actors speak with their natural accents—and it brings an immediacy and intimacy to the performance of this timely, disturbing play. This could be any school, anywhere.

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Cameron Laurie & Ruth Goodwin. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

Outstanding work from the entire cast. As William, Laurie’s charming class clown persona gradually spirals from engaging and enthusiastic to deeply disappointed and troubled. And he has some lovely two-handers with Goodwin, who gives Lilly a secret dark edge of her own, masking Lilly’s own sense of fear and vulnerability.  As class power couple Bennett and Cissy, Graham and Seline appear to be polar opposites. Bennett’s sharp intellect is overlaid with a wild, sadistic streak, while Cissy is a tightly wound overachiever whose smug self-assurance belies an underlying fear of failure. And Pimento’s Chadwick is the mouse that roared, his scientific mind spitting rapid fire facts about the impending global apocalypse.

Shouts to the design team: Nancy Anne Perrin (set and costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Andy Trithardt (sound). The use of animal masks during scene changes, coupled with the jolting punk rock soundtrack and dramatic lighting blasts, highlight the raw, primal underbelly of these uniformed, and largely privileged, teens.

The kids aren’t alright. Ferocious urges, dark thoughts and painful secrets in the raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock.

Punk Rock continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till April 14; advance tickets available online. In the meantime, check out the trailer: