Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Theatre) A Spirit's Face

(photo by Neil Silcox)
Exposing All, Right Down to Cell Level
by Keely Kwok

Grief, pain, loss, all feelings we’d rather suffocate below the surface than deal with on a regular basis. And yet, these are the elements of Hunter and Jake’s broken world in Jeff D’Hondt’s A Spirit’s Face.  

The play follows the relationship between Hunter Stowe, an Aboriginal palliative care worker, and Jake Montour, an Aboriginal addictions counsellor. Hunter (Madison Walsh) idolizes her deceased father and would rather survive among the dying than deal with the living. Meanwhile Jake, (Cole Alvis), has yet to make an impact on any of his clients and lives with a debilitating panic disorder. Throughout the play Hunter and Jake pass the truth ball back and forth, taking turns revealing bits and pieces of their darkened past. Sounds cheery right? Despite the description, D’Hondt has infused the play with laugh-out-loud lines, particularly with Hunter. Humour is her coping mechanism and she delivers it with fantastic flare. 

Madison Walsh’s Hunter is unlike any female character I’ve seen before on stage. Hunter is charismatic, funny, loving, toxic, scared, hurt, pained… a survivor. Major thanks to playwright Jeff D’Hondt for creating such a complex and flawed human being (who just so happens to be female). Walsh has such strength in her performance both physically and emotionally. She is so present in every moment and emotion, which, as the story jumps through time, is just impressive. One moment she is destruction itself and the next she’s sarcastic and flirty, calculatingly covering up her troubles. Whatever the moment calls for, that’s what Walsh delivers. 

Cole Alvis is a great partner to have on stage. In a moment when Jake teeters on the cusp of keeping it together or succumbing to a full-fledged anxiety attack, Alvis strategically maneuvers his way through Jake’s pain and suffering with a distinct rhythm. His tempo increases at the precise pace needed to give a performance so real and authentic, it’s terrifying to witness. As an audience member, you feel his anxiety and when Jake is helpless, so are you. In the climactic scene full of drunkenness, panic, betrayal, anger, and grief, Alvis is absolute unreserved chaos. 

Throughout the play there’s a great deal of communicating emotion without words. What they feel is all in a look or a silent slump of the shoulders. Both Alvis and Walsh manage to pull this off. You may not know the reason behind their expression, but the pain and heartache is more than understood. It’s felt. 

Director Ali Richardson makes good use of the space and configures the minimal set pieces into becoming different locations like a bus, dock, or Hunter’s apartment. The play is transition-heavy but the actors do well to stay in the moment. They’ve also used a screen as a backdrop with projections of the different settings. I’ll admit, when it was just a projection of the setting, I could have done without it. It just felt artificial and unnecessary in a play that is so rich and rooted. However, there are moments when the backdrop actually ends up enhancing the emotional journeys of Hunter and Jake. Like when Jake has a severe panic attack, designer Andy Moro has the science and overwhelming facts and figures flashing on the screen. That, accompanied by Nick Potter’s powerful music, is like sitting through your own engineered anxiety attack. 

The final moments of the play are beautifully quiet. Just two people, stripped bare of any pretences or flourishes, holding one another and surrounded by soft light. One audience member was so eager to show their appreciation they started clapping right away. But most wanted to savour the serenity and pause after witnessing such a poignantly brave story. 

A brilliant piece of writing and overflowing with frank honesty, A Spirit’s Face challenges the grief and pain we’d rather not face. The story grows from the trials of a relationship and the gut wrenching fear of revealing one’s inner demons until there’s nothing left. It’s a valiant struggle for truth and vulnerability. For exposing all, right down to cell level. 

June 3 - 14
Read also an interview with Elizabeth Morris about the production

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