Broadcast Text reviews: FLOYD COLLINS and BEATRICE & VIRGIL

by Lynn on April 18, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, April 18, 2014 CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM, Floyd Collins at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie, Ont. Until April 19 and Beatrice & Virgil at Factory Theatre until May 11.

The host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. So, what treats to you have for us this week?


I have two intriguing shows that tell compelling, shattering stories.

The first is Floyd Collins, a musical based on a true story. Book by Tina Landau with Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel and additional lyrics by Tina Landau.

It’s about Floyd Collins, a man from Kentucky who dreamed of finding the perfect cave and get it ready for the public as a tourist attraction.

And Beatrice & Virgil an adaptation of author Jann Martel’s novel of the same name. It’s about the friendship and harrowing story of Beatrice who is a donkey and Virgil, a howler monkey who are friends, and what they had to endure.


Let’s start with Floyd Collins. Is there much drama in a man trying to find the perfect cave?


Heaps. It’s 1925. In central Kentucky. There are interconnected caves all through that area, and Floyd Collins, a cave explorer, wants to find a new entrance to these caves. He walks into the cave but then has to crawl on his stomach through passage ways, and 55 feet down he gets stuck. His lamp goes out. He’s in the dark. He dislodges a rock that falls on his left foot and then wedges against the wall. He can’t move. He’s 150 feet from the opening of the cave.

Help comes. They get him light, food and water.They try and get him out. They can’t because of the rock on his foot that is lodged tight. The press comes. A reporter named Skeets Miller, who usually covers sports, is sent to cover this story for his small paper. The story is first considered unimportant, hence the sports guy is sent.

Miller’s dispatches on the event eventually are syndicated in more than 1000 papers. (An aside, he wins the Pulitzer Prize for this). Amateur radio covers the story. It’s huge. It was like a circus atmosphere on the surface outside the cave, but not so much for Floyd Collins inside the cave. Through it all Floyd Collins was in the cave for 14 days waiting for rescue.

So the drama and tension of course is established by Tina Landau’s book depicting Floyd’s situation; the frantic efforts to free him; with the stirring, gripping music and lyrics of Adam Guettel adding to the experience.


Talk about the music a bit…it seems odd subject matter for a musical.


I’m not so sure. Whoda thought the rise of the Nazis in Germany would make a thrilling musical—but Cabaret does nicely. A serial killer who uses a straight razor to kill his customers becomes the musical Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

So why not a guy stuck in a cave becoming a musical? Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics grip you by the throat. He comes by his talents honourably. His mother is Mary Rodgers, who wrote the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress. And his grandfather is Richard Rodgers who seems to have composed everything else on Broadway—Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, etc. All shows dealing with serious stories.

Guettel lulls us into the story of Floyd Collins with the beautiful song “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” which tells us who Floyd is, his hopes, dreams and ironically how he realized those dreams. The music is melodic; the lyrics are thoughtful and vivid. There are songs that depict the attitude of Floyd and his changing moods in the cave; songs that characterize what’s going on above ground both cynical and fearful. They cover a whole raft of emotions and depict the world Floyd lives in. And of course there are echoes of our world too—the hunt for glory through celebrity, for example.


How do you put that story on the stage?


With tremendous ingenuity and tenacity. First a background story. This production of Floyd Collins is a co-production between Patrick Street Productions in Vancouver, where the show played first, and Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont. The set was put on a transport truck for the journey to Barrie. It never arrived in time for the opening night last Friday. The truck never left Vancouver and the trucking firm was not forth coming with any information as to why. When the Globe and Mail started enquiring the theatre company was informed. It was not viable to do the journey with just the containers with the set—the trucking company was hoping/waiting for another shipment of other goods to make the journey. Never happened.  So the truck never left.

The production was done with no set but a whole lot of imagination and clear, clean direction by Peter Jorgensen. Simple projections on a large screen at the back of the stage established various locations. A huge photo shows a shelf of rock underneath which is the cave entrance. A diagram shows Floyd’s location in the cave. Headlines are projected charting the gruelling two weeks of trying to get Floyd out.

As Floyd Collins, Daren Herbert, slithers, his way along the floor and with every grunt and gasp conveys the tight quarters he’s in; how trapped he is; how terrified; yet brave. It’s a dandy performance of a man who says that faith is believing in something you can’t see; who is religious, tenacious, hopeful, and eventually resigned. He also sings beautifully.

As Homer Collins, Floyd’s brother, Michael Torontow is strapping, a bit of a hot head, but totally devoted to his brother. He too sings beautifully.

As their fragile minded sister Nellie, Krystin Pellerin is a waif of a woman, innocent and delicate. The family bond between sister and brothers is strong.

Much of the rest of the cast is uneven and that tends to slow down the pace. But they all work beautifully when they sing, thanks to Jonathan Monro, the musical director, who has a strong grasp of the music and how to get the best out of his chorus of singing actors.

Floyd Collins is a gripping tale and worth a visit to Barrie.


And now this odd tale of Beatrice &Virgil about a monkey and a donkey. What’s that all about?


It’s based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name. It was adapted by first time playwright, Lindsay Cochrane. It begins with a letter that a celebrated author named Henry receives. Henry alludes to his hugely successful second novel that used animals to tell the story—the book is of course Martel’s The Life of Pi.

The letter is from a taxidermist also named Henry. He wants the author to come and help him with his play. The play is about two of Henry’s stuffed animals; Virgil, a red howler monkey who had his tale cut off by his murderer, and his close friend Beatrice, a donkey.

In one of their early scenes in the play within this play, Virgil and Beatrice are on a lonely road, waiting by a tree. They talk of waiting, of wanting to leave but staying. The references to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are obvious. And I’m a bit intrigued why the author, who would know such things, does not mention that in the play.

Beatrice and Virgil can’t remember what day it is. They talk of many of the days being Godless. The author sounds out the taxidermist about the background of the stuffed animals and his play. Gradually, clues emerge. It was a time in which efforts were made to get rid of people of a certain faith; in which laws were imposed against them. Beatrice and Virgil called that time “The Horrors”. While such situations can be applied to many horrors of the 20th Century, Martel is referencing The Holocaust and the Jews. And he’s using Beatrice and Virgil as his voices.

We get a shuddering feeling from the author’s questioning that the Taxidermist might have been involved. As the play moves on, the grip on the audience becomes tighter and tighter.

It ends with the author reading off several games, which are really moral dilemmas. For example after being aware of this particular horror and you got to heaven what would you say to God? This goes nicely with the reference earlier to several days being Godless.


How is it as a production?


The production is shattering for all the right reasons. Theatre does many things–it entertains, informs, enlivens. But it’s at its most effective when it holds a mirror up to us and shows us how we are, what we have become and where we are going. Certainly what is happening to Jews in Ukraine is a sobering reminder of how history repeats itself.

The play is sensitively adapted by Lindsay Cochrane.  Director Sarah Garton Stanley continues on that sensitive tack. There is nothing brash, loud or overbearing about the direction. She directs her actors with a steady hand guiding them with as much subtly as the text demands as the shock of it reveals itself to its stunning conclusion.

It starts with the author giving a reading/lecture about his book and how he came to meet Henry the taxidermist. The author is played by Damien Atkins. Atkins has a way of looking both bemused and moved at the same time.  There is grace in his work.  His character is quietly amused by this mysterious taxidermist and then stunned by the story and how deeply he’s sucked into it. Atkins also plays Beatrice with intriguing body language that comes clear towards the end.

As the taxidermist, Pierre Brault is blunt, matter of fact, a bit impatient, and formidable.  He also plays Virgil the howler monkey as a kind companion to Beatrice, who is overwhelmed with what they have witnessed.

So, Beatrice & Virgil starts off slowly revealing itself. Initially you wonder where the play is going but when it becomes obvious and it has you in its grip you can’t move. That’s theatre at its best. It shows us our world. And with what is going on in it at the moment, theatre and plays like Beatrice & Virgil are more important than ever. 


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

Or on Twitter @slotkinletter

Floyd Collins plays at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts until April 19.

Beatrice & Virgil plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until May 11.

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