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A scene from "Imprints"

Michael Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Theatre Gargantua is top-of-the-line when it comes to multidisciplinary works. Every production is filled with dazzling technical wizardry and imaginative physicality, and the subject matter is always provocative.

At the heart of Theatre Gargantua is the talented husband and wife team of director Jacquie P.A. Thomas and playwright/set designer Michael Spence. They spearhead the original productions that are the company's stock in trade, created with input from both the creative team and acting ensemble.

The new show Imprints is inspired both by genetic coding and Alice in Wonderland, a sort of a DNA trip down the rabbit hole.

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Lily (Stephanie Belding) has a life-threatening disease. At the beginning of the play, we see a close-up film shot of a doctor and a nurse bending over Lily from her point of view lying on a gurney. She's about to be cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found.

The doctor assures Lily that this icy sleep is a state of oblivion, but nothing could be further from the truth. And so we get to the crux of Spence's play (dramaturgy by Bruce Barton). Being frozen means you meet the ghosts of your ancestors, and it is a harrowing journey.

Spence has certainly come up with an intriguing premise for theatrical exploration. Our DNA is the sum total of every human in our line of descent. When Lily enters her DNA, she meets a bizarre cast of characters from her evolutionary lineage and, in the process, discovers what created her genetic disorder. It is an ugly story involving incest and murder.

There is humour in Spence's dialogue stemming mostly from Lily's modern-day reaction, both verbally and intellectually, to these genetic ghosts – a collision of cultures, as it were. Belding portrays Lily's bewilderment with appropriate fear laced with curiosity.

Ron Kennell is a murderous figure bent on vengeance for past crimes, and he is a strong presence onstage. More benign is Spence as a Mad Hatter/Cheshire Cat genetic guide living in a tree and spouting elliptical poetry.

Then there are Cosette Derome, Conor Green and Kat Sandler as annoying Tweedledum and Tweedledee clones, albeit a trio, who sow mayhem and confusion in Lily's path. They slyly drop hints of dark tidings to come without giving details, all of which adds to Lily's anxiety.

One of the glories of Imprints is Cameron Davis's black and white projections. One stunning image, for example, has videos of the other actors superimposed on Belding's face, instantaneously changing her persona, yet keeping her individuality intact at the same time.

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Laird Macdonald's precision lighting keeps the black-box stage set intact. He pinpoints what must be seen, while obscuring what shouldn't be seen. In fact, the way the projections and lights work together is masterful. The use of physical bodies and an a capella soundtrack help to drive Lily's journey down the DNA highway.

Physical movement is always important in a Theatre Gargantua show. For example, at each new step down the DNA highway, Lily's body convulses and thrusts forward. The bad-news trio, for lack of a better name, execute intricate entanglement of their bodies.

Director Thomas has also added cunning use of black draperies. At one point, Belding wears a long black cape, which, after clever manipulation by the actors, reveals Green as a male incarnation of Lily, and Belding nowhere in sight.

Also compelling is the live soundtrack devised by Thomas and the acting ensemble that includes rhythmic chanting and a capella singing. Layered under these eerie, otherworldly noises is the atmospheric electronica sound design of Michael Laird and William Fallon.

There is one weakness in the script, but it emanates out of the structure of the story and may be unavoidable. There is too much of Lily saying, "Where am I?", "What's happening?", "I don't understand." It takes a trifle too long for Spence to get to explanations.

Nonetheless, there is never a dull moment onstage in a Theatre Gargantua production.

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Imprints continues until Nov. 26.

Imprints

  • Written by Michael Spence
  • Directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas
  • Starring Stephanie Belding, Cosette Derome, Conor Green, Ron Kennell, Kat Sandler and Michael Spence
  • Theatre Gargantua
  • At Factory Theatre Studio in Toronto


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