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Nathan Barrett and Virgilia Griffith in "The Innocents" (Jordan Tannahill)
Nathan Barrett and Virgilia Griffith in "The Innocents" (Jordan Tannahill)

Review

From harrowing to alienating: Two plays, different results Add to ...

Reviewed here: Crash (4 stars); The Innocents (2 stars)

With Crash, Pamela Sinha has written a truly harrowing piece of theatre, a play all the more remarkable for being her first.

In this one-woman show, Sinha tells the story, in the third person, of an unnamed rape survivor who has a flashback during her father's funeral. Details of the horror she endured at the hands of a stranger in a Montreal apartment a decade earlier are slowly revealed, interspersed between scenes showing how the traumatizing crime affected her relationships with her family members afterwards, and their relationships with each other and God.

The woman – she uses the word “girl” throughout to describe herself, as if trying to recover a lost innocence – struggles to remember the face of her attacker and is racked by guilt for either having been too afraid to commit it to memory, or for having blocked it out. “Can’t remember isn’t the same as forget,” she says. “Forget is don’t want to remember; can’t remember is don't want to forget.”

Though presented in a chopped-up chronology, there’s nothing fuzzy about Sinha’s narrative, and everything rings true in its heartbreaking uniqueness. It all feels deeply personal.

While new to playwriting, Sinha regularly appears on Toronto’s stages as an actor – and here she gives the most powerful performance I've seen from her, chilly and controlled.

Director Alan Dilworth, who also shepherded Erin Shields’s Governor-General’s Award-winning play If We Were Birds to the stage, again provides a stylish but sensitive staging for a story of violence against women. He keeps the tension high throughout.

Taking full advantage of the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace’s new augmented lighting plot, designer Kim Purtell has filled the tiny stage with an Escher-esque maze of black staircases, then throws pinpoint projections on them that take us to the scene of the crime and show us every piece of evidence. The whole package impresses thoroughly.

From a dark, black box to a bright, white one: Daniel Karasik’s play The Innocents is getting an indie production at Tarragon Theatre's studio space, lit by pillars of damning, fluorescent light.

Karasik is an up-and-comer. His play Haunted took the 2011 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, while his short story Mine just won the CBC Short Story Prize last month.

The Toronto playwright is already, as they say, big in Germany, where The Innocents has been in repertory at the state theatre in Mainz for the past two years. Perhaps, however, this is a case of something being gained in translation.

The Innocents tells the story of a hot-shot Toronto lawyer in his mid-20s who finds himself defending a man about the same age and from a similar background up on murder charges after a botched robbery. Really, the case is a MacGuffin that allows Karasik to explore the very different quarter-life crises of these two, one a wunderkind beginning to question what he rushed for, the other a trustafarian mired in pot-enhanced existentialist angst.

Played by Karasik, Stanley the lawyer is the central figure, his chief hang-up being the fact he never had sex in high school or, indeed, since. His self-consciousness about that fact infects all areas of his interactions; it’s not much of a peg to so heavily hang a play on, though.

There are also two female characters who Stanley irritates and enchants: Another wunderkind, a newspaper reporter played by Virgilia Griffith, sexy, smart and committed to getting the story using both those talents, as well as a singer working as waitress, played with truth by Amelia Sargisson. But they aren’t so much humans in their own right, as beacons of hope for the two troubled men.

Karasik is obviously a smart guy. Indeed, the problem is, he’s too obvious about his smarts. The over-the-top articulacy of the characters is like Aaron Sorkin on speed. It’s alienating and I didn’t believe anything about it aside from Sargisson’s performance. I admired Jordan Tannahill’s hyper-cool, oh-so-casual direction, however, complete with fully lit scene changes set to electro music.

If The Innocents were being live-tweeted, every second line could be followed by the hashtag #firstworldproblems. But it clearly has appeal. What I was impressed with here is that, catching up with it on a Wednesday mid-run, I was submerged in a sold-out sea of twentysomethings.

Both Crash and The Innocents run until May 13.

Crash

  • Written and performed by Pamela Sinha
  • Directed by Alan Dilworth
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto
  • 4 stars

The Innocents

  • Written by and starring Daniel Karasik
  • Directed by Jordan Tannahill
  • At the Tarragon Theatre
  • 2 stars

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