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Emma Khamovich in Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales.Wayne Eardley/Brookside Studio

  • Title: Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales
  • Written by: Kim Blackwell and Lindy Finlan
  • Director: Kim Blackwell
  • Actors: Jack Nicholsen, Rebecca Auerbach, Robert Winslow
  • Company: 4th Line Theatre
  • Venue: The Winslow Farm
  • City: Millbrook, Ont.
  • When: Continues to Oct. 30

Jack Nicholsen as John Deyell.Wayne Eardley/Brookside Studio

In the time of the coronavirus, a Toronto-based theatre critic in search of plays to review must head off the beaten path. He might even find himself slipping along a muddy one leading through a farmer’s field in the pitch dark on a frosty October night.

On Tuesday evening, I made my long-overdue acquaintance with 4th Line Theatre, which has been performing outdoors on a 100-acre farm in Cavan Monaghan Township since 1992.

It’s just under two hours from Toronto, about half an hour from Peterborough and a few minutes from the main street of Millbrook, an ultra-quaint small town that recently played the role of Charlottetown in Anne with an E, but doesn’t, be forewarned, have much in the way of pre-show dining beyond a Subway.

4th Line was founded by actor, director and playwright Robert Winslow on his family farm and, since 2014, Kim Blackwell has been its managing artistic director. One of Blackwell’s innovations has been to expand the company’s programming – new plays with a focus on the history of the region – outside of the summer.

Maggie (Madison Sheward) and Tristan Peirce.Wayne Eardley/Brookside Studio

Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales, which Blackwell directed and co-wrote with general manager Lindy Finlan, is her fifth “off-season” offering – though it’s a bit of a misnomer in this case, as there was no on-season because of public-health restrictions.

This is a Halloween show with all the requisite moaning and monsters, but also rooted – as many of 4th Line’s plays are – in the real-life horrors of violence between Protestants and Catholics in rural Ontario in the 19th century.

It begins at sundown in a yard bordered by old barns. The audience, masked and, in some cases, scarfed, is capped at 80 instead of the usual 400 and starts off seated.

The story itself kicks off with John Deyell (Jack Nicholsen), a character who shares a name with the Protestant founder of Millbrook, throwing his pregnant wife Margaret (Rebecca Auerbach) out of the house after discovering secret love letters.

Samuel (Lev Khaimovich), their young son, runs into the night to find his mother – and teenage daughter Maggie (Madison Sheward) uses the opportunity to sneak out and meet her secret Catholic boyfriend.

Lev Khamovich as Samuel.Wayne Eardley/Brookside Studio

Once the Deyells are all on their respective nocturnal adventures, the audience follows lantern-carrying ushers on a hearty hike across the property in search of them.

Subsequent scenes take place in the middle of fields, on the edges of woods and at the top of ridges. Flashlights are recommended by the company, and I recommend them too after overestimating my nighttime vision and nearly getting a soaked shoe.

The young Deyells encounter supernatural creatures such as evil opera-singing puppets eager to thieve their little legs, while the parents encounter more tangible, but no less spooky menaces such as a congregation of Shakers trying to channel spirits.

There are many terms for 4th Line’s type of theatre – but an older one, “environmental,” seems most appropriate.

I was struck time and time again by the interactions, visually and aurally, between the actors and the environment in Blackwell’s production: the sounds and sights of plants swaying as women in long skirts ran through them; the shadows, long as city blocks, cast by actors illuminated by hand-held lights; the natural echoes of voices across acres of air.

A star-suffused sky, startling to this city slicker, was always there as a backdrop and Mars made a memorable cameo in one scene, glowing angrily behind the heads of Orangemen threatening a young Catholic boy’s life. (Did Blackwell purposefully craft this juxtaposition with an astronomical almanac in hand?)

With 20 actors, Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales is by far the largest cast I’ve seen in-person since the pandemic began – though that would be big for a Canadian play even in ordinary times.

Financially, 4th Line pulls off that trick by being a hybrid community-professional theatre. Only a few of the show’s actors are members of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association. Others are regulars with the company, and many are teenagers and children. (This hasn’t inhibited playwrights as accomplished as Judith Thompson and Andrew Moodie from writing for 4th Line in the past.)

If you’re curious about the logistics of large casts amid COVID-19, Blackwell tells me that many scene partners live in pre-existing bubbles. Five of the Shakers, for instance, are played by the MacQuarrie family: Caiomhe, Dierbhile, Riordan, Saoirse and Siobhan.

It was still a shock to see humans playing characters who don’t live together physically interacting. I was hard to rattle as a spectator in the pre-COVID-19 times, but now I found myself gasping at kisses and fist fights. (The appearances of Bloody Mary, not so much.)

Halloween is an invitation to consider what truly frightens us – and my fears, it turns out, aren’t all that far from those of 19th-century rural Ontario farmers right now.

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