At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.
Written and performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson
Original music by Britta Johnson
Original lyrics by Britta Johnson and Katherine Cullen
Directed by Aaron Willis
Set and costumes by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting by Jennifer Lennon
That’s right, a musical comedy about dyslexia, that has wonderful music, clever lyrics and two beguiling performances by Katherine Cullen, who tells her story and Britta Johnson who beautifully supports her at the piano and in many other ways.
The Story. Actress-playwright Katherine Cullen has always had a dream of doing a musical. By her own admission two things might have stood in her way towards realizing this dream: lack of training and ability. These are mere triflings when you consider the sheer force of nature, personality and determination that is Katherine Cullen. Fine tuning this determination is that Cullen has been painfully aware she is dyslexic since grade three when insensitive teachers and ‘friends’ have indicated she was different because of it. What a perfect subject for a musical.
Katherine Cullen takes us through her angst-ridden journey of coping with dyslexia. Hers is unusual because her reading is not that affected. She has difficulty with maths and spatial situations. She has no sense of direction. Finding the bathroom in public school posed a dilemma which she thought about and solved in her own way. There is the fear of making mistakes and being wrong. There is also the Cullen quirky sense of humour and determination that helps her cope when matters go off the rails.
The Performance. The set by Anahita Dehbonehie is simple and effective in establishing a sense of what Katherine Cullen has to contend with regarding dyslexia. There is a white ‘fluffy’ structure suspended above the stage which is obviously a brain. It will be cleverly used later in the show. In front of that, also suspended, is a jumble of red tubing that twists and turns, that is representative of the jumbled messages that get garbled in the brain of a person with dyslexia.
Stage left is a piano with a floral covering in front of it, the domain of Britta Johnson, musician-composer-lyricist extraordinaire and Katherine Cullen’s creative partner for Stupidhead! Britta Johnson composed the music (every song of which I want to hear again—I wish there was a song list) and co-wrote the lyrics. She is dressed in a red dress. When Johnson plays the introduction that should get Katherine Cullen to appear and she doesn’t, Johnson has to bring her out to centre stage, firmly but kindly. Cullen is a picture of impishness: two tight pigtails at the top of her head, a red sweater, black stretch ‘leather’ pants and black boots.
Her performance is beguiling. While Cullen has sober memories of dealing with her disappointments because of dyslexia she tells her story in a funny, irreverent, whimsical way. Britta Johnson not only accompanies Cullen beautifully on the piano, she listens to her as if for the first time and she is usually smiling as a genuine reaction. That reaction of Johnson’s is infectious. The songs detail difficulties for Cullen, disappointments, triumphs and inspirational advice (“Don’t Give Up). The lyrics are wonderfully clever.
Director Aaron Willis directs Cullen with a smart sense of when stillness is effective and when wild dancing is appropriate. Willis puts Cullen through her paces for a person who is directionally challenged. He has her shifting to the left, right, back and then in various directions. What we are aware of is a performer in control and full of the joy of it.
If I have a quibble it’s that it looks like the show ends at least twice. At one point Cullen sings a song with two of her childhood toys who exhort her to “Never Give Up.” That’s is the mantra for Cullen and this show. She is the successful actress-playwright because of that attitude. Yet the show goes on for a bit longer before it ends. I think ending with “Never Give Up” is a stronger finish.
Comment. One might assume that for Katherine Cullen dyslexia is at the top of her list of things that might define her. For those lucky enough to have seen her perform (and hear the words she’s written) Katherine Cullen is gifted, impish, funny, irreverent, confident, successful, composed, joyful and a thousand other things more important that a diagnosis of dyslexia. Stupidhead she is not. The show is wonderful.
Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille
Opened: March 21m 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 2 gifted women.
Running Time: 90 minutes.