by Lynn on October 29, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the novel by Sara Levine
Adapted by Karen Woolridge
Directed by Kate Lynch
Lighting by Christopher Ross
Sound by Mike Fowler
Costumes by Jody McLennan
Puppet Design by Gemma James-Smith

A quirky look at a classic boy’s adventure, turned on its ear and given a gender twist.

The Story. Our Girl wants a better life than the one she has. She becomes obsessed with the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Treasure Island. Sure it’s a boy’s adventure story, but Our Girl thinks she can try to live her life according to the story’s various “core values” of boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. We never actually see Our Girl blowing a horn, but I take it on faith.

She works at a pet library—people can rent animals for various occasions. Her boss, Nancy, is a fretting micro-manager. Our Girl has a hectoring, ineffectual boyfriend. Her own mother is not very supportive. A good friend tolerates her but in the end disappoints her in a big way.

In keeping with the parrot’s presence in the original Stevenson novel, Our Girl buys a parrot in the hopes she will teach it to talk and give her companionship. The parrot in turn twitches and quietly squawks. Talking, it seems, is not on this parrot’s agenda. But at various points in the story the parrot channels Our Girl’s boss, Nancy, with her impenetrable accent; her quiet mother; her valley-girl speaking sister; her best friend, and her boyfriend. Is the parrot really speaking? Is it Our Girl’s imagination? Our Girl is so obsessed with Treasure Island and living her life according to what she thinks are its values, she ignores reality. Real life is a challenge to her. Even replacing the birdcage newspaper liner is one of them.

The Production. The production begins with a frantic banging on the outside door of the building of the theatre. Christopher Douglas (I believe), the Stage Manager of the show, rushes down the aisle of the Backspace from the booth at the back, across the front of the stage, off-stage and opens the heavy door. Douglas then charges up the aisle to the booth at the back, ready to continue. Lots of flurry of activity as Our Girl arrives. A curtain is drawn across the stage as she prepares. Then there is another frantic banging at the same door, Douglas rushes down the aisle from the booth, across the front of the stage to off stage to open the door again, and then back up the aisle to the booth. A bit more activity behind the curtain, and then an arm comes out, waiving up to the booth to start the show.

The curtain is parted. There is Our Girl played by Caitlin Driscoll and behind her, on a solid, wooden perch, is a gorgeous green parrot puppet and behind it is Gemma James-Smith, the parrot’s creator and the voices of every character except that of Our Girl.

As Our Girl tells her story—falling in love with the book of Treasure Island—referencing everything that’s happened to her—the parrot quietly tweets and gurgles. Our Girl looks at it and says something like: “A bit distracting.” Our Girl is giving voice, I’m sure, to what we in the audience are thinking. The result is that the parrot’s sounds now become part of the story and not distracting from it. Brilliant!

Director Kate Lynch delicately creates this odd world of Our Girl playing off a parrot and its many voices. Lynch’s collaboration with her two gifted actresses establishes a cohesive whole. It’s a delicate dance deciding when that parrot chirps, twitches, or coughs etc. without pulling focus. It’s to everybody’s credit that the result embraces us into the telling.

As Our Girl, Caitlin Driscoll is open faced, trusting, and has that confidence that to her everything she is doing makes sense even though we know she’s off-the-wall-loopy. Driscoll is such an engaging actress (even when she has scared me in other productions) that we buy into her story, but know she’s deluded. And her involvement with the parrot is a case in point—she treats it as if it’s human, and it is when those voices come out of it. Driscoll gives Our Girl charm so we are not put off by her obsession and loopiness.

Equally as gifted is Gemma James-Smith, not only as the various voices of other characters, but also as the creator and manipulator of the parrot puppet. As the puppeteer James-Smith is totally focused on the puppet without expression. It’s the audience that gives that parrot expression, not the puppeteer. James-Smith has learned puppeteering from a master—Ronnie Burkett is her step-father. The various voices that James-Smith gives to the various characters in Our Girl’s life are distinct, funny and so appropriate.

Comment. My Treasure Island!!! Is a quirky, sweet, entertaining night in the theatre. I must confess, though, I am mystified with that bit at the beginning when it appears that the two actresses are locked out of the theatre. I don’t know what that is all about. It can’t be a set up for humour because the story and its telling is funny on its own.

Sara Levine has taken a decidedly boy’s adventure story and turned it on its head, making it a story with women being the focus. She then has Our Girl imagine that there are subtle layers to the story, worthy of deciphering, only to have the sane voice of one of the characters remind her it’s only a boy’s adventure. Terrific imagination.

Karen Woolridge’s adaptation of Sara Levine’s novel is quirky enough to make me want to read the novel and then Stevenson’s original source material again. Good theatre does that.

Produced by Johnson Girls with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened: Oct. 28, 2014
Closes: Nov. 16, 2014
Cast: 2 women, 1 parrot puppet
Running Time: 75 minutes.

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