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0 out of 4 stars

SCRATCH

Written by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

Directed by ahdri zhina mandiela

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Starring Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

At Factory Theatre in Toronto

***

For most people, there are just five stages of grief. But for a theatre artist, there is an additional, sixth. After denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance comes the semi-autobiographical play.

Writing about a loss can be excellent therapy for a playwright, but excruciating theatre for audiences. With Scratch, however, Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman has transformed her personal experiences into an original and well-observed play about both coming of age and coming to terms with a parent's death.

The 23-year-old recent theatre-school graduate gets her hyphenate surname from father Layne Coleman, former artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille, and mother, Carole Corbeil, the novelist and one-time Globe and Mail arts reporter who died from ovarian cancer eight years ago.

These two appear in Scratch barely disguised as an unnamed musician (Kevin Bundy) and painter (Mary Ann McDonald); reinforcing the fact that this is thinly veiled autobiography, Corbeil-Coleman takes on the role of their 15-year-old daughter, Anna, who is suffering from a persistent case of lice.

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Mom, being a hippie, has vetoed the chemical-filled concoction usually used to treat the nits, so Anna scratches away as hundreds of highly symbolic bugs eat away at her head.

Scratch is at its best when it bursts out of Anna's bubble and into the lives of the people around her. There is the Aunt (Catherine Fitch) who doesn't understand why her sister refuses to see her, or why her niece doesn't want to shop at the Gap. And there is a pain-obsessed Poet (Ryan Hollyman), hired to cook the mother's meals and squeeze her hourly glass of juice. (Chemotherapy having failed, the mother has turned to less-conventional treatment.) Last, but not least affected, is Anna's best friend and rival, Maddy, an aspiring artist who views Anna's mother as a mentor. Monica Dottor is tremendous as this hurt teenager, excluded from the official grieving process and resentful of the fact that while she suffers, Anna shows no signs of sadness.

Of course, Anna is dealing with the death - just in her own anxious, idiosyncratic way. Her grief morphs into hypochondria, into lust and, most of all, into more and more seemingly ineradicable lice. She proves an astute observer of the situation, nonetheless, describing the concerned adults trying to protect her by putting on a brave face as all "borrowed smiles and furrowed foreheads."

Director ahdri zhina mandiela keeps the cast on Kelly Wolf's spare, rather literal scratching-post set for the whole show, interacting with and observing one another's scenes from the sides of the stage. It's Anna's story, we are told, but the point is that, as alone as she feels, she needs everyone to help her tell it.

Corbeil-Coleman's poetic writing can become circular, and could use a trim, but she crops up with well-articulated insights often enough to forgive the excess verbiage. She describes romantic love as a process of memorization: learning and remembering everything about the object of your affection, and captures that strange sense of purpose and strength that often accompanies tragedy.

Her acting chops aren't quite as impressive: It's tough to pinpoint her age, and she has a blank stare that bulldozes much of her performance. One could pick more nits from the play's scalp - the father is underwritten, and Bundy is unable to flesh him out - but the kinks in its tangled hair are part of its wild charm as it builds to its tragicomic climax. Scratch feels honest the way it is, and you can go for a long time without seeing an honest play.

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Scratch continues until Nov. 2 (416-504-9971).

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