Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

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A boy goes missing & a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing

 

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Nikki Haggart, Jocelyn Adema & François Macdonald, with Patrick Fowler in the background, in Tire Swing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Filament Incubator is back again with its 5th play of its #8playsin8months season, this time in association with Epigraph Collective on a production of Curtis te Brinke’s Tire Swing, directed by Sadie Epstein-Fine and running at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

Four pre-teen friends playing on the edge of town go deep into the forest as twilight descends – and only three of them come out. Was it a shadow monster or a man they saw? And what happened to Kevin (Patrick Fowler)? Kevin’s sister Ellen (Nikki Haggart), and friends Mark (François Macdonald) and Lauren (Jocelyn Adema), struggle to come to terms with what happened – as well as their own sense of survivor guilt – as a town mourns a lost boy, presumed dead.

As the three friends grow up into high school seniors, they find they can’t deny what they saw in the forest that fateful night. The thing that didn’t make it into the police reports. The thing they’ve spoken of to no one – not even each other. Until now. Mark is convinced that something is after them. And they can all feel something watching them from darkness.

The cast does an awesome job with the storytelling. As the young group’s leader Kevin, Fowler brings a fearless, adventurous, devil-may-care attitude – along with something strange and otherworldly that you can’t quite put your finger on. And he gives their high school classmate David a cocksure but congenial confidence and presence; the school’s golden boy, David is brave on the rugby field, he can’t find the courage to come out and be open about his burgeoning relationship with Mark.

As Mark, Macdonald is the investigator of the group; cynical and not content with taking things at face value, he wants to know the truth – and he questions everything and isn’t afraid to believe the unthinkable. As Mark explores his sexuality, perhaps David reminds him of Kevin; and like their friend Lauren, he had a crush on Kevin when they were kids. Adema’s Lauren is the heart and soul of the group; a dreamy, star-gazing academic, she was the last one to see Kevin – and feels the most guilt for running away that night. As Kevin’s sister Ellen, Haggart is the emotion of their gang, especially the rage. An earthy soul, Ellen’s feelings emerge as physical sensations tied to the land, the trees, even her brother’s bedroom – left untouched in denial of his loss and anticipation of his return.

Part memory play, part ghost story, part coming of age story, Tire Swing scoops you up into a Stand By Me meets X-Files world of mystery and nightmare. The language is rich, even poetic at times; and the staging is atmospheric and spooky.

With shouts to designer Jason Thomson (set, costumes, lighting) for the eerie multi-media environment – featuring some very cool, evocative projection imagery – putting the audience in the middle of the forest, with the three surviving kids’ bedrooms around the edges.

A boy goes missing and a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing.

Tire Swing continues at Kensington Hall until Oct 22; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book tix in advance – and please note the 7:30 curtain time.

Up next, Filament Incubator joins forces with Little Black Afro Theatre to produce Filament Incubator producer/playwright Aaron Jan’s Swan, a sister piece to Tire Swing running November 3-13 in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace.

In the meantime, check out the awesome trailer for Tire Swing by Andrew Pieroni: