Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Heart (Toronto)

Instead of going to a Superbowl party on Sunday night, I went to the theatre. Honestly, I forgot to put the game on my calendar and when it came down to switching my tickets for Dark Heart or watching the NFL, there was no turning back--Genevieve Adam's new play promised werewolves.

Dark Heart invites its audience at the Assembly Theatre to enter a forest back in 1661 when this land was not yet called Canada. Amable Bilodeau (Michael Iliadis), a green soldier just arrived in New France, gets himself thrown in the middle of marital drama, conflict between the settlers and the native tribes, and supernatural danger when he pulls Metis trader Toussaint Langlois (Garret C. Smith) out of the river.

Three stories begin to weave together, with Toussaint and Amable at the core. Nobleman Seigneur Louis de Lamonthe (Paul Rivers) put his wife Madeleine (Audrey Clairman) into the asylum at the local hospital, not for madness but punishment for cheating on him with a member of the local tribe. But after a few days, Sister Marie St. Bonadventure (Brianne Tucker) assisted Madeline in escaping. Dr. Joseph Sarrazin (John Fitzgerald Jay) and Amable go off to find and protect Madeleine, while Louis blackmails Toussaint into tracking his wife--until all come together in the woods where the loups-garous or werewolf is said to lurk.

The program says that Amable is the protagonist of the play, but I found the women he encountered in New France more compelling. Genevieve Adam wrote one of the most confusing, yet exciting characters for herself in the bone-setter or Eleonore "Lizzie" Ramezy. She seduced both of the male leads in the play, as the true puppet-master. As the only settler born and raised in New France, she seems to hold the most knowledge about how to survive, practically and culturally, amongst all the conflicts whirling around her. I suppose that is the trick of the play--though the men believe they are in charge, it was truly the women like Eleonore pulling the strings.

I loved the set from the moment I walked into the space, mainly because the characters were already populating it. Sister Bonadventure and Dr. Sarrazin both made announcements about where the washrooms were located (behind the stage) and then Dr. Sarrazin even sat down to chat with me. Though the dirt onstage and the trees growing out of the floor and into the ceiling made it a forest, it felt like one to which we had been invited. It made the following battle scenes and moments of intimacy feel that much closer.

I wanted to love this play with my whole heart, for the work it did to tell a tale of Canada's past that still felt so relevant today. And yet whether perhaps the pacing was off on the night I saw it or if watching new plays makes me more rather than less critical, I left feeling off-kilter. As I see it, two things contributed to this imbalanced feeling for me.

First, there were so many plot twists, turns, and secrets were buried in this play. Due to all these layers, it became difficult to see which characters knew what, when. I could feel that most of the characters had something to hide (pretty much everyone but Madeleine and Amable), but without enough context clues, I did not know the characters well enough to guess or to pick which ones I wanted to root for in the ensuing battles. It's that magical balance between foreshadowing and edge-of-your-seat plot twists and I did not feel it in Dark Heart.

Second, as excited as I was about the werewolf portion of the play, it was the area that disappointed me the most. With so much mythology to draw from--both from the concept of the bearwalker and shapeshifters in the Indigenous traditions and the loups-garous myth about the devilish Christian men turned werewolf--I felt like the stories got mixed. As the characters entered the forest, I knew that they all had the werewolf to fear, but I was unsure whether this being would be a man or woman, Indigenous or settler, or if it should be honored or feared. I did not trust the monologues of Dr. Sarrazin because they did not include the Indigenous mythology and seemed so separate from the world of the play otherwise.

All that being said, this play is daring, action-packed, and it brings so much life to Toronto's independent stages. The show is on until February 11th. For its intimacy and relevant, action-packed story I say it is not one to miss.

*General Admission- first row.

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