There are a number of reasons Judith Thompson’s ghost story is a university theatre favourite. The linked scenes about life’s horrors quietly crushing a neighbourhood of Torontonians offer meaty roles to a large cast. Surreal stage directions and the play’s connecting thread – a dead girl searching her old haunts for a murderous “lion” – give creative teams permission to let imagination loose.
But mostly it’s the writing – the poetic, painful, powerful writing. Characters verbally cut their wrists and bleed out on stage. Soul-crushing encounters such as a wife’s public attempt to seduce her adulterous husband and a man jacking off while forcing his fiance to relive a rape are cranked to Shakespearean heights. Even at those extremes, the text stays grounded; indestructible honesty in the face of inhumanity.
Thompson’s writing shines through regardless of performer and direction, which ranges from good to rough in Black Hole Theatre’s production. Good are Erica Hoiss’ Ophelia-fixated Joanne and Sarah Putnam’s hard to watch/hard to turn from Scarlett, who assassinates the safe stereotype of a person with a disability.
Less good are moments and actors who triple underline, highlight and hammer the drama home. The advice “let the writing fuck you up, don’t feel you have to fuck yourself up” applies to a number of unearned large moments. Like a number of university shows, the team’s age may be a factor – both the young techniques of the actors and the lack of life experience to draw on.
The laughs are also missing. Yes, there are laughs here. Bitter, surprising and dark, dark, dark – there are great comic bits in Lion, written not so much to defuse tension as to accentuate it. (And make you feel like a shitty person for laughing). BHTC leaves them out, though director Ivan Henwood grasp of the play’s redemptive arc is solid and, on more than one occasion, impressively subtle. Watch Joanne lie on the floor, describing her elegant suicide. Wraith Isobel gently caresses her hair in a fleeting moment that speaks louder than any shouting.
Ultimately, Thompson’s forgiveness play is a forgiving show to do. Writing this strong is celebrated and revisited for a reason.
Lion in the Streets
By Judith Thompson
Black Hole Theatre
Through November 30
Directed by Ivan Henwood; with Abigail Allen, Kaeleigh Ayre, Ian Bastin, Steven Csincsa, Kevin P. Gabel, Erica Hoiss, Gislina Patterson, Sarah Putnam and Tasha Roth; set and light design by Garrett Rusnak; costume design by Karen Schellenberg; sound design by John-Evan Bear; fight direction by Andrew Cecon; movement coaching Brenda McLean; original music by Jeff Rowe; musical direction and stage management by Renata Echtenkamp.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.