Her chunky aviator glasses are held together with masking tape. She has a weeping wound on her forehead and short hair that looks like it was styled with a hedge trimmer. Her brown-and-yellow-striped jersey is begrimed with a maroon-coloured substance that could be vomit. Or blood. Or, likely, both.
Mission Bird, the weird young woman played by Haley McGee in her loopy monologue Oh My Irma, is a walking disaster-area-cum-crime scene. The neatest conceit in this little solo show, now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, is the way McGee wears the clues to Mission's misadventures on her body. As the piece, a murder mystery of sorts, unravels, we slowly discover the reasons for each aspect of her dishevelled appearance.
Along the way, we also learn that McGee is a very talented actor but only a semi-interesting writer.
When we meet her, Mission is on a mission. Someone has murdered her laundress mother, Irma, and left her bloody body lying on a tuxedo shirt monogrammed with the letters "P.P." Mission recounts to us how she tracks the owner of the shirt to his luxury apartment, where she pesters the stoic P.P. into finally revealing his past history with her mother. Along the way, we're treated to painful accounts of self-mutilation, a vivid description of puking in a closet and, to top things off, a horrific episode involving P.P.'s obese pet dog, also named Irma.
McGee plays this ghastly stuff mostly for laughs. Mission is a kind of beat-poet brat who recites her story with a snappy rhythm and a stand-up comic's pregnant pauses. Impish and engaging, she's sort of like Harriet the Spy as played by the Pulp Fiction-era Amanda Plummer. At one point, she even ventures into the audience, sweetly coaxing someone to touch her.
It isn't until the very end of the 65-minute piece that McGee shifts gears and attempts, not very successfully, to go from the comically creepy to the genuinely disturbing.
McGee is a young writer that Passe Muraille has taken under its wing and she's not without promise. The dialogue scenes between Mission and P.P., in particular, are spare and witty. But the play, which was developed at the Banff Playwrights Colony and given a test run at the Edmonton Fringe last summer, is just a quirky trifle. Derivative and not wholly realized, it's not so much a compelling tale as an acting showcase for its creator.
As such, it's pretty impressive. McGee is an assured and savvy actor. From the moment the lights come up, she has us eating out of the palm of Mission's grubby little hand.
She's aided by the expert direction of Alisa Palmer, who frames messy Mission in a tidy minimal production. David DeGrow bathes the white stage of his empty set in soft pastel lighting and casts the occasional shadowy window on the naked brick walls of the Passe Muraille Backspace. They're in tasteful contrast to Camellia Koo's gleefully tacky wardrobe for Mission, a nerdy-girl ensemble that mixes stripes, plaid and print.
I can't say I've seen McGee's previous writing efforts, but based on Oh My Irma, I wouldn't go out of the way to catch one of her plays. I would, however, pay good money to see her act again.
Oh My Irma
- Written and performed by Haley McGee
- Directed by Alisa Palmer
- At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto on Tuesday
Oh My Irma runs until Jan. 29.
Special to The Globe and Mail