Love, marriage, friendship & infidelity in the intensely intimate, brilliantly executed Betrayal

Virgilia Griffith & Ryan Hollyman. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper rounds out its summer programming with its intensely intimate, brilliantly executed production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by Andrea Donaldson and running at the Young Centre. A compelling look at intricate, overlapping webs of lies and deceit, it’s a fascinating look at the dynamics of love and infidelity between a husband and wife, and the husband’s best friend—and the subsequent impact on the marriage, the friendship and the affair itself. Told in reverse chronology, we start with a meeting two years after the affair has ended and go back in time to finish at the moment it was initiated.

When we first see Emma (Virgilia Griffith) and Robert (Ryan Hollyman), they’re meeting for a drink two years after the end of their affair. Robert, also married with children, is the best friend of Emma’s husband Robert (Jordan Pettle). What follows is a brief history of the relationship, shifting from this somewhat awkward meeting, to the break-up, to the revelation, and back through the pseudo-domestic bliss of afternoons spent at their furnished apartment oasis, to the moment the affair starts. We also see Robert and Jerry spending time together, including their favourite Italian restaurant, where they’re served by a waiter who clearly knows them as regulars (Paolo Santalucia, delightfully familiar with an edge of attitude). Questions of who knew what and when are revealed, concealed and lied about throughout, with selective candour emerging at pivotal moments—by chance or on purpose?

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Ryan Hollyman & Jordan Pettle. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning performances all around in this tight, sharply drawn Pinter favourite. The three main characters are very smart—both culturally and intellectually—and, coupled with the fact that they’re all professionals in the British arts and culture scene, the cool, polite and cerebral nature of their banter-filled interactions belies the fiery, devil-may-care, primal passions within—and the accompanying loneliness and ennui that lead them astray. Griffith brings a self-possessed air of confidence to independent and enigmatic Emma; the most pragmatic and level-headed of the affair pairing, Emma’s participation seems to come more from a place of loneliness than passion. Hollyman’s Jerry is an affable combination of wit, enthusiasm and cluelessness; a man with a “talent for finding talent”, Jerry pursues Emma with the lyrical passion of a university freshman—then gets upset when he learns that his best friend knows he’s been having it off with his wife. This hypocrisy extends to Robert, played with cool, poker-faced detachment by Jordan Pettle; with razor-like precision, Robert reveals little and conceals much—and has been having affairs himself, possibly out of a sense of marital ennui.

Starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, the brilliant reverse chronological structure not only acts as a compelling rewind on the relationships, but serves as hindsight wisdom. The finely-tuned energy and pacing of the performances create the feeling of a fire gone out at the beginning, to a dying ember, to a spark at the beginning—a spark that, one imagines, has emerged from the dying embers of the two marriages. It is a thrilling, guilty pleasure to witness; and the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the piece makes the audience feel complicit in the cheating. And the outstanding efforts of the design team transport us to both time and place with impeccable attention to detail and flare: the teak furniture and print designs of Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes; the enjoyable mix of late 60s and 70s music for the pre-show, and gripping original soundtrack from sound designer/composer Richard Feren; and Rebecca Picherack’s sharp, focused and atmospheric lighting design.

Betrayal continues at the Young Centre until September 25, the run was extended due to popular demand; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. This is an extremely popular production, with a packed house on a Tuesday night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

ICYMI: Jordy Kieto interviews director Andrea Donaldson about the production in Intermission Magazine.

Department of Corrections: In the original posting, I neglected to mention actor Paolo Santalucia’ performance as the Waiter; this has been corrected.

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Deconstructing art & friendship in the razor-sharp, scathingly funny Art

Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis & Huse Madhavji. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Dana Osborne. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at how a debate on the merits of post-modern art turns to an exercise in deconstructing friendship in its razor-sharp, scathingly funny production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Daniel Spragge. The cerebral and emotional responses to a newly acquired painting set off intense and surprising ripples, impacting the relationship of three friends. Art opened to an enthusiastic crowd at the Young Centre last night.

Serge (Diego Matamoros) is very excited and happy about a new painting he’s just purchased and proudly shows it off to his friend Marc (Oliver Dennis), who despite attempts at a tactful response, laughs and proclaims it to be shit. And not only that, Marc is extremely concerned about Serge—for spending a ridiculous amount of money on a painting that he believes to be worthless, and for possibly turning into a poser. Looking for a second opinion on the interaction, Serge and Marc individually approach their friend Yvan (Huse Madhavji), using him as a sounding board as they relate their description of what transpired.

Yvan is more tolerant and accepting of choices and differences, he doesn’t see what the big deal is. Plus, he’s got problems of his own to deal with—namely, the wedding planning hell he’s navigating with his fiancée and their respective parents and step-parents. And when he gets his own unveiling of the piece, he doesn’t like it—but he also doesn’t hate it either—and respects Serge’s choice.

The debate between friends on the merits of the painting and post-modern art in general  turns into a deconstruction of their relationship, whereby barbed quips become savage accusations and revelations. Brutal honesty on steroids unveils hidden jealousies, revulsion—and even a heated battle for dominance in friends’ social and intellectual lives.

Excellent work from this three-hander cast in this hilarious and revealing look at art and friendship. It’s delightful to watch the child-like level of glee and enthusiasm with which Matamoros’s Serge unveils his painting to his friends, navigating sight lines and pondering the canvas, hand on chin; this coupled with the pride of a burgeoning art collector who’s acquired an important work. With the heart of a philosopher and more than a few hints of a status-seeker, Serge is a complex man. Dennis brings an amiable but somewhat aloof air of precision and worldliness to the urbane Marc; a fan of the classics, Marc looks with withering skepticism upon modernity in art and lifestyle—and any whiff of the poseur is met with great derision and suspicion. Marc’s vehement opposition to and concern over Serge’s purchase of the painting is obviously masking something deeper about their relationship. Madhavji is a treat as Yvan, the understanding and open-minded friend in the middle who laughs with, as opposed to at, the situation; the Switzerland of the trio, Yvan often acts as an umpire for his two friends. Accused of being disingenuous, a doormat and a coward, he’s able to see both sides of the argument and feels no need to dominate his relationships—he just wants to be a good friend and husband.

A savage comedy of manners, Art is a compelling exploration of how a response to outside stimuli (in this case, a painting) can trigger a deeper, visceral reaction to those closest to us. Passions flare with biting criticism and conflict, only to be salvaged by good humour, good nature and agreeing to disagree.

Art continues at the Young Centre until September 1; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.

A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

Absurd, uncomfortable & ultimately human interactions in the darkly funny, unsettling Little Menace: Pinter Plays

Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye, Gregory Prest & Maev Beaty. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper opened its darkly funny, unsettling buffet of short Pinter plays at the Young Centre last night with Harold Pinter’s Little Menace: Pinter Plays, directed by Thomas Moschopoulos; and featuring 10 short pieces played out in 14 scenes over the course of 90 minutes. The short, pointed examinations of human interaction are at times absurd, uncomfortable and even surreal—and, in the end, ultimately human.

Little Menace: Pinter Plays features Trouble in the Works, Last to Go, Special Offer, That’s Your Trouble, New World Order, Victoria Station, Apart from That, The Press Conference, The Basement and Night; New World Order appears twice, switching up the actors and the scenario, and Apart from That is played out in four variations, aptly bookending the performance. The impressive four-member ensemble includes Maev Beaty, Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye and Gregory Prest.

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Alex McCooeye & Gregory Prest. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Ranging from the bizarre in the hilarious mundanity of the workplace in Trouble in the Works (played with bang-on dead pan and impressive articulation by Matamoros and Prest) and the unlikely but tempting weirdness of Special Offer (a wry, incredulous Beaty, playing a high-level professional); to the sharply funny failures to communicate in Apart from That (all four actors, in four different pairings of beautifully awkward, polite exchanges where no one really says anything) and the ‘Who’s on First’ vibe between dispatcher and taxi driver in Victoria Station (Matamoros as the gruff dispatcher at his wit’s end and McCooeye as the child-like, simple driver), Little Menace highlights the awkwardness and missed connections in our day-to-day communication.

The discomfiting scenarios of personal and political dominance in The Basement (ensemble), the menace of terrible things to come in New World Order (McCooeye and Prest in a thuggish turn that goes from darkly funny to plain dark when they switch up roles and include Matamoros as a hostage in the second incarnation), and the sharply funny satire of a civil servant working in the culture sector in Press Conference (featuring a chilling matter-of-fact Matamoros as the civil servant) look at the darker sides of human connection. And the lovely nostalgia of Night highlights how even cherished reminiscences between a loving couple (Beaty and Matamoros, in a beautifully quiet, intimate performance) can be mixed up or forgotten altogether.

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Diego Matamoros & Maev Beaty. Set & costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar, compelling performances from the ensemble in this intimate, often raw series of short plays—showcasing the range of the talent on stage in performances of authentic nuance and intense rawness. Nicely supported by the sharply modern, sterile—open concept, yet claustrophobic—set and neutral grayscale of the costumes (both designed by Shannon Lea Doyle); and Simon Rossiter’s shadow-casting, modern aesthetic, sometimes intensely interrogative, lighting design.

What’s real? What’s true? What the hell is going on? Even in the most everyday, mundane situations, we’re a strange lot; and there’s a lot that goes on between the lines and in those awkward silences as we get caught up in our own fears and the various eccentricities of our inner worlds. And that’s a huge part of what makes us human.

Little Menace: Pinter Plays continues at the Young Centre until March 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

A young hero’s quest for identity in the delightful, inspiring all-ages musical Rose

Rose ensemble, with Hailey Gillis centre. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper continues its Family Festival programming with the world premiere of Rose—a brand new original musical three in years in the making, adapted from Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book The World Is Round. With music and book by composer and music director Mike Ross, and lyrics and book by Sarah Wilson; directed by Gregory Prest, assisted by Jennifer Weisz; and choreographed by Monica Dottor, this delightful, inspirational story follows the journey of the nine-year-old titular hero as she sets off in search of her identity. Rose opened at the Young Centre last week; I caught the matinée yesterday.

Narrator Frank the logger (Frank Cox-O’Connell on guitar) and logger bandmates Buddy (John Millard on banjo) and Jessie (Raha Javanfar on violin) welcome us to the town of Somewhere, where everyone likes to say their name and tell you all about themselves. Only the quiet, introverted Rose (Hailey Gill) just can’t seem to say her name, no matter how hard she tries, or how much encouragement she gets from her outgoing BFF Willie (Peter Fernandes) and faithful dog Love (Jonathan Ellul). Rose is a thinker who believes a name means a lot—and she has questions. And maybe the answers to those questions will help her sort out her predicament. After all, how can she say her name when she doesn’t know who, what, where, when or why she is? Mocked by classmates who view her as a weirdo, but determined to learn, she asks her teacher Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock), who encourages her to try something new.

Rose takes this advice to heart and chooses a different direction, trying on a new, wild personality in the process—a decision that puts her friendship with Willie in jeopardy and further isolates her from her community. Then, inspired by the idea of getting a new perspective from the local mountain top, she sets off alone to climb it to see if she can find her answers there—and ultimately, the voice to say her name.

A tale of navigating life’s contradictions and weirdness, Rose is about love, acceptance and being true to yourself—and the resilience, determination, faith and hope required in the search for the answers to life’s questions. Even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped or expected, the journey’s the thing. And, oh the places you’ll go, within and without yourself, when you step out of your comfort zone and try something new—all while recognizing and respecting your limits.

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Hailey Gillis. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Gillis shines as our young hero Rose, giving an engaging, thoughtful and vulnerable performance as the not so little girl on a big mission. Shy, awkward and pensive, Rose longs to say her name and is driven to crazy lengths to find it within herself to do so. Gillis’s performance resonates in a deep, honest way; we’ve all felt lost and out of step with our lives at times—and identity is an ongoing evolution as we continue to explore our talents, desires and boundaries. Fernandes is an energetic treat as the confident extrovert Willie; the perfect match to the quiet Rose, Willie enjoys life’s simpler pleasures—but even he finds himself starting to ask questions. Ellul makes an adorably sweet and goofy canine pal with the loyal Love; struggling to be heard himself, even Love manages to push past his communication boundaries.

This multimedia, multidisciplinary musical features a multi-talented, multi-tasking ensemble, most of whom play several roles; not previously mentioned are Troy Adams, Michelle Bouey, Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis and Raquel Duffy. Stand-outs include Bridgewater’s fierce Tina Turner-esque turn as the Lion Woman, in a powerhouse performance executed with style and impressive vocal chops. Grown-ups of a certain age will recognize Dennis and Duffy’s hilarious nod to Body Break as Trevor and Beth the Gym Buffs; and Dennis brings rock star charisma and presence as Billie the Lion. Rock gives us an endearing, comic performance as Miss Crisp, the patient, put-upon, high strung teacher.

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Raha Javanfar, Frank Cox-O’Connell & John Millard (foreground), with Raquel Duffy, Oliver Dennis, Peter Fernandes & Scott Hunter (background). Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The music makes a joyful noise—inspired by blue grass, folk, gospel, rock and traditional musical theatre—and features a tight onstage band in addition to the three musician loggers: Scott Hunter on bass, James Smith on keys and Adam Warner on drums. The songs will have your heart singing and get you on your feet as you cheer for Rose along her journey. Visually spectacular and sporting a vibrant palette, Lorenzo Savoini’s imaginative and practical set, lighting and projection design, and Alexandra Lord’s playful costumes, add to the magic.

Truly a musical for all ages, Rose has something for everyone—and, like the Lion Woman, you may even see yourself in our young hero. A name really does mean a lot. Say yours loud and proud!

Rose continues at the Young Centre until February 24; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out this Intermission Spotlight by Robert Cushman on Mike Ross.

And here’s the production teaser:

 

Power, politics & cunningly crafted image in the riveting, brilliant The Virgin Trial

Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper presents Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial, directed by Alan Dilworth, assisted by Katrina Darychuk—opening last night at the Young Centre. The companion piece to The Last Wife, the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Stratford Festival in 2017, with the final installment of the trilogy, Mother’s Daughter, to premiere at Stratford in this coming May-October. A riveting and brilliantly orchestrated look at power, politics and the cunningly crafted image of a young queen in waiting, The Virgin Trial incorporates modern dress and language as it explores cat and mouse, life and death interrogations following a plot against the life of young King Edward VI. A teenaged Bess, who would go on to become Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen; and Thomas Seymour, who was married to Bess’s stepmother Catherine Parr, are at the centre of the investigation.

The nicely appointed interview room in the Tower, with its elegant table and chairs, crystal chandelier overhead (set and costume design by Yannik Larivée, lighting design by Kimberly Purtell), belies the minefield of questioning, manipulation and thinly veiled threats that subjects will be subjected to—not to mention the dark and treacherous confines of the plastic-curtained halls without. Enter Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh), a ruthless noblewoman on a mission, and the smooth-talking Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett)—playing good cop to Eleanor’s bad cop—to question young Bess (Bahia Watson) over what she knows about Thom Seymour’s (Brad Hodder) alleged recent attempt on King Edward’s life.

As the stakes get higher, the interrogators dig deep to find dirt on Bess, real or imagined, in an attempt to manipulate her testimony, as well as public opinion of her; slut-shaming,  leaking fake news, and playing on her own loyalties as well as those close to her to get the answers they want. Next in line to the throne—second if you ignore her half-sister Mary’s (Helen Knight) religion—Bess is highly suspect by association: her “traitor” “whore” mother Ann Boleyn and her suspected romantic ties to Thom, coupled with her outspoken, quick intelligence, make her a dangerous player in this game of thrones. The line of questioning turns to Bess’s possible involvement in the plot, pulling in her governess Ashley (Laura Condlln) and assistant Parry (André Morin), who both knew about and supported Thom’s romantic advances.

Outstanding performances from the ensemble in this intense, at times darkly funny and playful, tale of royal intrigue, machinations and a young woman’s growing sense of power. Watson is spellbinding as the complex, mercurial young Bess; a playful yet observant child wise beyond her years, Bess soaks up knowledge like a sponge and is able to manifest it into action with alarming speed and accuracy. On the brink of womanhood, her growing sense of power—both sexual and political—fascinates and excites her, the seeds of the fierce, savvy monarch who made history planted before our eyes.

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Yanna McIntosh & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

McIntosh gives a gripping and intimidating performance as the stone cold, calculating Eleanor. Her menacing tone and bearing illustrate a particularly merciless variation of female badassery in this play, along with Knight’s delightfully wry, gives-zero-fucks Mary and Watson’s ambitious, rising future queen Bess. Bennett’s sleazy spin master Ted complements McIntosh’s Eleanor nicely; a master of image projection, and oozing false warmth and sincerity, while Ted’s methods are decidedly different, the desired outcome is the same. Hodder does a great balancing act with Thom’s likeable handsome rouge exterior and the lechery that lies beneath; a complex man whose alliances appear to shift with circumstance, one wonders what Thom’s true motives are.

 

The Virgin Trial, Stratford Festival 2017
Brad Hodder & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Great supporting work from Condlln and Morin as Ashley and Parry—at times offering some much-needed comic relief; as Bess’s closest confidantes, Ashley and Parry are both loyal, supportive and a bit laissez faire with her. Perhaps their close proximity to celebrity, and a possible future queen, has clouded their better judgement, blinding them to what’s really going on behind the scenes and how they’re implicated in Bess’s actions.

 

Ambition, power and public image feature prominently. Underestimated and undervalued, Bess truly believes that she was meant for better things. She is not the innocent she appears to be; and there’s far more than meets the eye to this young woman whose secret heart is set upon the throne.

The Virgin Trial continues at the Young Centre until February 3, including a special matinée performance added on January 31 and a 7:00 performance added on February 3. Advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer: