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The Yellow Wallpaper Project

Based on the story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Adapted and directed by Kate Cayley

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Starring Amy Stewart and Anna Siddall

At Artword Alternative Space

in Toronto

Rating: ***

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper is hailed as an early feminist classic about the systemic oppression of women. Not quite the zinger on the bestseller list, you demur? It's also, however, a horror story, perfectly equating loss of personal freedom with madness and despair.

In the late 19th-century, a woman writer suffering from a vague nervous tendency and depression is taken to a country house by her well-meaning physician husband for a period of convalescence. There, she becomes almost hypnotized by some truly hideous yellow wallpaper in the bedroom, imagining a figure trapped behind it. The plot sounds hokey, but her descent into madness is a terrifically chilling read, and fledgling theatre company Stranger Theatre gets it mostly right with their perplexing but fascinating adaptation.

Two nameless women act out the story. Amy Stewart is Woman 1, the "I" of the short story, while Anna Siddall is Woman 2, doubling as the husband and other roles. Stewart, a charming and compelling storyteller, is utterly authentic as the unsettled, unhappy wife desperately trying to be well. Siddall's more mannered approach adds a wicked hint of absurdity, preventing the production from being a long-lost prequel to Prozac Nation.

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Director Kate Cayley sticks pretty much with Gilman's satisfying narrative, although she does add some thought-provoking material to emphasize the story's postfeminist aspects. Taking inspiration from The Birth of the Clinic by Michel Foucault, one scene stresses a culture of fear and obedience, and the patient's "required" fear of their doctor is an excellent counterpoint to the narrator's alleged hysteria. That the narrator's husband is a doctor is a subtle-as-a-Victorian-era-lobotomy comment on the unequal state of marriage in that period.

Another scene, however, in which Siddall relates a snippet about a baby that turns into a pig, is just delightfully weird.

The imagery similarly veers between lucid and opaque in this brief, 60-minute show. Three flimsy fabric panels make up the backdrop onto which stage manager Lea Ambros projects Siddall's wonderfully spooky silhouette as the woman forever creeping under the surface of both wallpaper and society. But other images are baffling: A box is used to represent a baby, the symbolism made murkier when it's revealed the box also contains the doctor's gloves.

Perhaps the one disappointment is the ending. The story builds to a deliciously terrifying explosion as the narrator and the woman behind the wallpaper merge. This is executed well enough, with Stewart and Siddall facing each other and sharing speeches, but the mere physical manifestation of two women dilutes the potency of the tragic fate of the narrator. The Yellow Wallpaper Project continues to Dec. 1. For information, call 416-408-2783.

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