09 July 2017
After the lights came back up at the end of Grey, I needed a moment to recover from the emotional wallop that this show packs. As someone who loves moral ambiguity and stories about flawed characters, this is exactly my kind of play, and it absolutely blew me away. Shifting between the present day parole hearing for Richard Buttle (Kenton Blythe), who was convicted of murdering Jayden Alexander (Kion Flatts) at a house party twelve years ago, and the circumstances and decisions that led to the crime, Grey is a fast-paced drama that challenges our preconceptions. Cleverly staged so that the actors are never absent from the set, but face away from the audience when they’re not in a scene, small prop and costume additions and subtractions let the actors play multiple roles, shifting between the parole hearing and the past. Using a stark set and minimal costumes means that the material and the actors really have to shine, and they do. The script calls on Kenton Blythe to switch quickly between the angry younger version of his character, and the contrite present-day Richard, and he does so remarkably well in a subtle and emotionally affecting performance. There’s not a weak link to be found among the superb five-actor cast though, with each actor creating a fully realized character that I could connect with. Throughout the play, characters grapple with questions of responsibility and blame, wondering what role their choices, and social factors that include disability, racism, and upbringing, played in the murder and if it could have been avoided. Playwright Chantal Forde expertly balances social factors with personal responsibility though, guiding the audience but letting us draw our own conclusions as Grey peels back the layers to reveal that what appeared to be a simple crime is in fact much more complex.
I Am Hope (A-)
Written, directed by, and starring Mia Raye Smith, this one-woman show is a humourous and heartwarming account of her struggle with anxiety disorders. Smith is an engaging and charismatic performer you can’t help but like, and it’s clear that she’s honed the script and delivery of her show for awhile. The result is a performance that moves along at a swift pace and never feels dull. Although it’s pitched as a show about dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, I Am Hope also looks at the root causes of her anxiety, and is as much about Mia’s sometimes dysfunctional, but loving, family and her childhood, as it is about anxiety. Smith shines through impressions of family, friends, and other important figures in her life (such as her therapist) that are differentiated enough that I could tell who was who in a scene, but not so over-the-top as to take me out of the action. What really struck me about I Am Hope is how well it balances humour and empathy. The script and delivery are often funny, as a pre-teen Mia tries to convince her grandmother that the movies she rents from Blockbuster are age appropriate, but Smith gives a performance that is also genuinely affecting. Anxiety and mental illness have been in the spotlight more often recently, and this solo show is an excellent addition to the dialogue, providing a sense of how debilitating it is to suffer from this condition, but also an optimistic outlook for the future. Even a heavy downpour outside, which led to a loud and persistent dripping noise through the last part of the play, couldn’t rain on Smith’s parade, and kudos to her for continuing without missing a beat despite the disruption. For anyone who has experienced, or is currently experiencing anxiety, I Am Hope is a must-see, but Mia Raye Smith’s charisma and her well-constructed show make this a play that just about anyone should enjoy.
Perfect Couples (B)
I loved the idea of Perfect Couples more than I enjoyed its execution. The importance of queer narratives and stories that deftly handle mental illness can’t be understated, but the play doesn’t deliver consistently. Centering around melancholic Val (Hannah Whitmore), who believes her girfriend Janine (Belinda Corpus) is cheating on her with their friend Rachel (Ariana Marquis), Perfect Couples examines the impact that mental illness has on a group of friends. Far from perfect, these couples are in the process of re-evaluating what it means to be in their relationships at this stage in their lives. The script is somewhat uneven, with genuinely funny and believable moments, but the occasional line that feels stilted and even a little pretentious. Playwright Mitchell Janiak isn’t afraid to create unlikable characters, but he arguably goes too far. The characters in Perfect Couples are not just unlikable but even downright cruel to one another, which makes it hard to find common ground with and root for these people. I also wish Val’s mental illness had been explored more fully, since we’re mostly told, not shown, the side effects of her illness. That said, there are things I admire about this play. The staging is well done, painting a picture of Val’s delusions, and the cast is strong, with Claire Keating a standout in a minor role as selfie-obsessed Sophie. Pitched as a contemporary play for the millennial generation, the play accurately captures the feeling of being stuck that many twenty-somethings experience and, more humourously, the little things, like chippits for dessert. Perfect Couples isn’t really my kind of play, but it was well acted, beautifully staged, and the audience seemed to get more out of it than I did.
Set in a dystopian future Toronto, where wealthy leaders have built a wall through the city and banished minorities to the poverty-stricken other side, this timely play examines how prejudice and fear can divide. Upon arriving I too was banished to the “other” side of the wall, complete with rustic upside-down plastic bucket seating for the audience. There, four rebels consisting of a father-daughter duo, the leader, and a pacifist poet, plan to cross back over the wall, but friction in the group threatens to put the crossing in jeopardy. There are some strong moments here, most notably a conversation between the biracial daughter (Cassandra Guthrie, who gives the strongest performance of the night) and the caucasian poet that touches on white privilege. While the poet made a choice to leave the wealthy side of the city because she didn’t agree with the leaders’ principles, minorities were forcibly evicted from their homes and didn’t have the luxury of choice. However, these moments are overshadowed by an unsubtle approach to the material and some unnecessary ukulele-accompanied song interludes (ukulexposition?). Part of the gimmick is that the audience only sees half of the story, but with 75% of the cast spending their final moments on the other side of the wall, it came off as unbalanced. Ultimately Rise/Fall left me wistfully wondering if the grass was greener (and the play brought to a more satisfying conclusion) on the other side of the wall.
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