In tiny spaces just off Queen West last week, two tiny plays took my breath away. One in the more metaphorical sense that it left me speechless and contemplative and moved but uncomfortable with said moving. The other in the literal sense that I was crying so hard I had trouble catching my breath.
Playwright David Harrower insists on calling his controversial and possibly brilliant pas de deux Blackbird a “love story”; the press release and nearly every review begin with this fact. The reason they begin with this fact is that it’s what makes Harrower’s play controversial, and possibly brilliant. There are very few things we can be sure of in this world, very few instances where the lines between right and wrong can be concretely delineated, very few people we can simply call “evil” without empathy and ambiguity complicating matters. But we try anyway, because drawing lines makes us feel better, like we can come close to understanding human beings. The case of the sexual relationship between 12-year-old Una and 40-year-old Ray should be one of those few instances; we should be able to throw around words like “evil” and “wrong” and have that be the end of the discussion. We’re certainly tempted to. But David Harrower doesn’t let us, because that wouldn’t be a story worth telling. A story that is worth telling is Blackbird as he’s written it, as a love story, albeit a love story that’s as unsettling as it is tender, as ambiguous as it is intense, as inspiring of disdain as it is pity. The name of Bill Cosby is being thrown around in the promotion of this superb and intimate production from actor/director David Ferry and actor/producer Sarah Booth but, in comparison, that case appears to be so much less complex, coming down to a lack of consent (pretty universally acknowledged to be one of those rare simply delineated rules of right and wrong) while Blackbird is, among many other things, about the definition of consent (Una clearly gave it but, at only 12 years old, was she equipped to do so?). David Ferry’s heart-wrenching performance as the brow-beaten and desperate Ray when confronted with Booth’s dangerously wounded adult Una, 15 years after the fact, is the utterly compelling nail in the coffin of simplicity. David Harrower could have written a portrait of a pedophile, something straightforward with a fulfilling conclusion of condemnation. Instead he wrote something greater that lives relentlessly in the infuriating grey space.
This One, on the other hand, lives wholly in a space of goodness, if not wholly in a space of joy. Brimming with sense memory and universal relatability (everyone’s got a mom, even if their experience is nothing like Denise’s), This One feels personal and hits you straight in the heart because of it. Playwright/performer Denise Mader welcomes you into Fraser Studios by offering you a cup of tea. When you’re stressed out, her mom used to say, drink a cup of tea. Our utterly charming hostess chats amiably with the audience as she waits for 7:30 and, when the time finally comes, she casually transitions such chatting into a performance, sharing stories of her mother as she bakes a pie (literally, the set is a functioning kitchen and she bakes as she talks). She begins sweetly, rifling through her mother’s old recipe book and recounting happy tales of her childhood on the farm with her tall, wonderful mom. I started crying about 4 minutes in, when Denise (you have to call her Denise, if she doesn’t feel like an old friend by the end of this show you’ve massively missed the point of Denise Mader) lifted the recipe book to her face and inhaled deeply. I didn’t know yet how her mother had died (though the past tense warns you that that story is coming) or how young she’d been when it happened (far too young), all I knew was that Denise was standing in the kitchen smelling her mom’s old recipe book and that her mom had somehow known she wouldn’t be able to locate the correct pecan pie recipe and had left her a note on the right page, “This One”. I thought of the little brown box where my own mom (alive and well and likely to live to a hundred) keeps her recipes, of the note in the margin of the banana cake recipe that says “omit the nuts” (per my brother’s and my request) and the well-worn card that sports the ingredients from a thousand chocolate chip coffee rings. Denise’s story is unbelievably moving entirely on its own. If I was grown in a lab and had never known the comfort of a hug from Ann Bedard (soft and cool and just the loveliest), I still would have found Denise’s story unbelievably moving. Details like the way her hands rolled out pastry and perfectly chosen stories like her dancing in the kitchen to force a moody teenaged Denise to smile make Denise’s mother come alive in that kitchen in Fraser Studios, and they make the loss of her hurt when Denise finally gets up the courage to tell that worst of all stories. But I wasn’t grown in a lab and I do know Ann Bedard- she dragged me to the AGO just the other day, I dragged her out for sushi in return- and, when Denise smelled that recipe book or talked about leaning on her mother’s arm as she stood over the stove, she harnessed the power of that relationship to make This One an emotional gutpunch. Even as we left the theatre to partake in the free pie found in the lobby after every performance, I was wiping the tears from my now mascara-free eyes. But This One isn’t traumatic like Blackbird, it’s beautiful and funny and wonderful so, as much as I was crying, I was smiling too.