by Lynn on April 29, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor S. W., Toronto, Ont.

Created by the Red One Theatre Collective.
Based on stories from Hilaire Belloc, Edward Gory and Heinrich Hoffmann.
Directed by Daniel Briere
Lighting by Melissa Joakim
Original Music by Francis Meling
Choreography by Ashleigh Powell
Origianl Artwork by Matt Ward
Cast: Christopher Darroch
John Fleming
Gabriel Hamilton
Thalia Kane
Andrew Lawrie
Julia Nish-Lapidus
Lesley Robertson
Kaden Boland-Trowbridge

An interesting exercise by the inventive Red One Theatre Collective to immerse the audience in art and re-imagined chilling children’s fables that often fall flat because the chill of the original isn’t realized in the re-imagining.

The Story. A little boy finds himself in a spooky forest and somehow is involved when the Aufseher’s house is destroyed. Google says an ‘aufseher’ is a custodian, warden, guardian etc. Or we can just call him a mysterious guy who lives in the forest and terrifies little boys. Anyway, for penance to save himself the boy must play a game involving the audience. The Aufseher gives the boy 12 cards, each with a picture on it, which he then distributes randomly to members of the audience. Each picture represents a story of horror and even morality. Except one card. One card is the picture of the boy. The aim of the game is that the boy then randomly takes a card from a member of the audience; gives the card to the Aufseher who then reads out the story title. The company of actors then re-enact the story. If the boy picks a card with his picture on it the boy dies and the game is over. Yikes.

The Production. The production starts in the lobby. Artist Matt Ward has created an art gallery of paintings of the various characters of the 15 possible stories, including a painting of the boy. The smaller cards the boy will give out have the same individual characters on the individual cards. The paintings are fantastical and have a note of darkness about them; perfect for the darkness of the stories. Even if the audience is not familiar with the stories, the spookiness of the paintings will establish the atmosphere in which the stories will be performed.

Once in the theatre proper the ghoulish cast of characters enter. Their faces are ‘painted’ a ghostly white with black stripes on the cheeks, around the eyes etc. for a ghoulish effect. They wear black clothing. The Aufseher, the very tall, imposing, mellifluous deep voiced John Fleming plays him with panache and a certain charm. He confronts the boy (aged 9 years-old), played by a sweet, confident Kaden Boland-Trowbridge making his professional stage debut.

Young Boland-Trowbridge is instructed to hand out a bunch of cards to members of the audience. I note from the number he hands out that there are not 12 cards. I also note that he gives two men in the front row cards being very respectful to all. One of the gentlemen in the front row is young Mr. Boland-Trowbridge’s father Dylan (fine actor) and the other gent is Ryan Hollyman, (ditto fine actor—Hollyman is now in Refuge at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.).

The stories vary in intensity of people caught in terrible circumstances: The Onion Wives is about good women who cook the results of their hunting husbands except one lazy wife who finds and eats onions that are intoxicating. She passes on her find to the rest of the village but there is trouble. The stink of their breaths keeps the animals to hunt away; Henry’s Habit makes him hide often as his habit is frowned upon; Mathilda the Liar is about a person who is truth-challenged. This last is based on a fable by Hilaire Belloc adapted by Staceylee Turner. Then there is Conrad the Thumbsuck which is inspired by The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb by Heinrich Hermann.

The cast of eight are lively, inventive, agile and fully committed to heightening the whimsy, silliness and spookiness of the stories. The problem is that while the stories vary in intensity, they also vary in quality in the writing or re-imagining.

Take Conrad the Thumbsuck. It was originally written by 19th century poet Heinrich Hermann for his three (!!!!) year-old-son, along with other ghoulish poems. It’s harrowing. A young boy sucks his thumb all the time. His mother warns him that if he doesn’t stop ‘the great, tall tailor’ will come with his scissors and cut his thumbs off. Conrad promises to stop sucking his thumbs. His mother goes out. Conrad begins sucking. He alternates between both thumbs he’s so intense in his thumb sucking. (Sort of like Henry and his ‘sordid’ habit ‘attending’ to another part of his anatomy, but I digress). The tailor bursts into the house with his long scissors and snips off both of Conrad’s thumbs. His mother comes home to see what’s happened. She chides Conrad who then bleeds to death. The end. In this version, written by John Fleming, Conrad is a grown man. He is a brimmed-hat-raincoat-wearing private detective. He has a dingy office but a confident attitude. He sits on his desk looking out to us confidently. It’s very film noir. A mysterious man arrives at the office. His name is Mr. Tailor. He wants to talk to Conrad. He mentions that Conrad has a secret of which up to that time we have no knowledge. Conrad, a grown man, sucks his thumb. Spooky Mr. Tailor takes out his puny scissors, stands in front of Conrad blocking our view and cuts off his thumb and leaves. Thud. That is the sound of this skit flopping onto the floor. Lifeless.

A little boy being warned not to suck his thumb because it’s a lousy habit and facing the consequences of the scissor man and dying when the thumbs are cut off by said scissor man, is a cautionary tale. A grown man who seems confident and only when the scissor man shows up to tell us of the thumb-sucking habit, does the guy suck his thumb, is not a cautionary tale. There is really nothing at stake here. The scissor man is used as a spook and a threat to the boy. The same spookiness does not work if the man is an adult and does not suck his thumb until late in the skit when Mr. Tailor brings it up and then snips.

Too often these skits lay there, lifeless. They either lack punch or are too long having overstayed their point. Added to that is the randomness in that the boy chooses the card from a person in the audience. There is no cohesive build in drama and tension in randomness. I note that often the boy chooses a card from a person he didn’t give it too at the beginning of the show, but I knew the person worked at the theatre. A bit of a set-up there? And I note that he doesn’t pick his own card from the woman who has it in her hand. Of course had he chosen it the show would have been over. Hmmmmm.

Comment. I love the off the wall gutsiness of the Red One Theatre Collective. Their last effort was the blazingly wonderful The Chasse Galerie. The Forest is their latest effort and it’s a miss. Back to the drawing board, please.

Red One Theatre Collective Presents:

Opened: April 22, 2016.
I saw it: April 24, 2016.
Closes: May 8, 2016.
Cast: 8; 5 men (one a child), 3 women
Running Time: between 45-90 minutes.

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