by Lynn on May 11, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by: Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler, Grace Thompson.

Directed and dramaturged by Judith Thompson

Choreographed by Monica Dottor

Set by Brett Haynes

Lighting by Sharmylai Taffe-Fletcher

Composer and sound by Olivia Shortt

Performed by: Bilal Baig

Maddie Bautista

Samson Brown

Nikoletta Erdelyi

Carolyn Hetherington

Radha S. Menon

Grace Thompson

The plays and performances are so deeply thought, nuanced and emotional it’s like being hit in the stomach and the heart, leaving you breathless.

 Judith Thompson, playwright-dramaturg-mentor-theatre magician, continues her determined journey to present the stories of people we rarely see or hear on a stage. She created the Rare Company to produce them. RARE was a show with actors/writers with Down Syndrome. She did a production with people in wheelchairs.

Welcome to My Underworld continues that journey with the short plays of nine playwrights presented by seven of them. Welcome to My Underworld is the title of one of the plays and the umbrella title for the whole evening. Each playwright was asked to write a short piece. Thompson linked them together, creating the world of the outcast, misfit, those looking for acceptance, but the plays are also distinct. The plays are not formally titled for this evening, nor are the playwrights formally introduced.

The evening begins with a young girl (Grace Thompson) who doesn’t feel she is real. She hasn’t got a sense of herself as a person. Is she on the spectrum? We aren’t sure. She is vibrant, curious and searching. She creates an imaginary friend named Mara and from there navigates her (under)world which then connects to the other plays.

There is the self-proclaimed ‘party-girl’ (Bilal Baig) who says she’s from Bangladesh who doesn’t want her parents to know she dresses like that, or is like that. There is the older woman (Carolyn Hetherington—a wonderful actress in her own right and now, at 88, a compelling playwright) who has had surgery and the medications for pain are making her hallucinate which could lead to disaster. A transgender person (Samson Brown) is in desperate need of a washroom and is challenged when they use the women’s washroom in a public place and all that entails. A confident young Roma woman (Nicoletta Erdelyi) in a wheelchair recounts how her father was jailed for shoplifting and died in prison from cancer and didn’t receive proper treatment. She illuminates how the world treats disability and those it thinks don’t belong. An anxious woman (Radha S. Menon) is being taken to a senior’s home by a kind man because she has dementia.

While all the plays illuminate a world with which one might not be familiar, they do bring us into their worlds to understand what is happening there. The standout for me is Maddie Bautista’s very funny but ultimately harrowing story of a young girl coming of age. She writes of the no-nonsense Filipina teacher who teaches girls about their developing bodies in speeches sprinkled with quirky expressions. And as one of the girls is aware of her budding body so is a family male friend who asks her to sit on his lap. The tone of the piece gently, subtly changes into something that makes you heartsick because of what happens next. Bautista’s story-telling is gently gripping. I can’t remember the last time I heard silence in a theatre that complete. No rustling. No coughing. No breathing until the end. Shattering.

Judith Thompson has guided these gifted playwrights to write about their ‘underworld.’ She has woven their stories into a narrative that is at all times compelling. She has directed the performers with economy, whimsy and sensitivity. Monica Dottor’s choreography/movement adds that extra level of finesse.

Often pieces are underscored by Olivia Shortt’s elegant playing of a saxophone, providing music and sound effects. I must confess at times I think that inclusion is distracting. Other times it is just right. For the Bautista piece there is only the sound of her voice—no music is needed.

Brett Haynes has created a simple set of a backdrop of a tree with roots painted on the floor. There is a swing up right as if hanging from a tree branch, stars in the branches, a picnic table right and a very comfy chair stage left. Olivia Shortt’s instruments and her little stool are stage left. Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher’s lighting is evocative and mood changing.

The evening concludes with each performer expressing their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil it with many examples but Olivia Shutt’s wish to read Harry Potter in her father’s native language (he’s an Anishinaabe from Nipissing First Nations) says it all with a squeeze of the heart.

Welcome to My Underworld is a bracing, sobering, often funny, always poignant look at the world of these gifted playwrights. I can’t recommend it highly enough. As that lovely little kid said at the end of a Hayden/Handel concert in Boston recently: “WOW!”

Rare Theatre Company Presents:

Began: May 8, 2019.

Closes: May 25, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours.

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