As spring has sprung, Toronto theatre's fancy has been heavily turning to thoughts of love. Despite the bright skies outside, the city's stages are awash in dark romances, ones underscored by violence rather than violins.
Following hot on the heels of American playwright Rajiv Joseph's exciting Gruesome Playground Injuries, we now get the Canadian premiere of British playwright Bryony Lavery's Stockholm, a two-hander that would work very well under the title Ghastly Kitchen Accidents.
It's Todd's birthday. He is back from Whole Foods with fish and fennel and is ready to break out his best Jamie Oliver impression for a quiet night in with his partner, Kali.
At first, Todd and Kali – played by Jonathon Young and Melissa-Jane Shaw – appear to have it made as a couple. They are emotionally open, sexually intense and, on the material side of things, proud owners of a dream house. (The kitchen is all we see, sleekly designed by Lindsay C. Walker.)
But something is off, and Kali's jealous, controlling nature gradually becomes apparent as Todd slices and dices away. She inexplicably denies his request to run to the store for a missing ingredient; she insults her in-laws with a little too much relish; and, after asking to borrow his cellphone, she goes through Todd's incoming and outgoing calls with a Bluetooth comb.
The title Stockholm, it becomes clear, refers to more than the Swedish city these two Bergman fans plan to visit on holiday. Lavery paints Todd and Kali's relationship as a hostage situation – though to what extent she feels this Stockholm syndrome metaphor might be extended to all couples is left dangling.
The title has a third, more subtle resonance. It's the birthplace (and deathplace) of August Strindberg, the notoriously misogynist playwright who, despite his prejudices, wrote great characters for women. Kali certainly seems cast in the mould of such power-hungry anti-heroines as Miss Julie or Laura in The Father, while Young seems one of Strindberg's weak victims of the modern matriarchy. It's provocative to find a female playwright taking up Strindberg's mantle, and a pair of feminist theatre companies teaming up to produce the result.
Lavery originally penned Stockholm for Frantic Assembly, a British physical theatre company run by the imaginative choreographer Steven Hoggett (who's currently up for a Tony for his sensitive work on Once).
Susie Burpee steps in for the Toronto production to craft the movement interludes between Lavery's offbeat dialogue. The athletic way she has the two actors put away the groceries is a wonderful illustration of how domestic drudgery can turn into bliss when you're in love, while the dances meant to illustrate the couple's abusive amour fou have a creepy, cannibalistic tone.
Young, an actor with terrifying elbows who is thin as a blade, whizzes his way through the manoeuvres with great ease, leaping from stovetop to counter with balletic grace. His character is beautifully drawn, as well – an emotionally battered husband who stays even though he says he is "too smart" to be in this situation.
Shaw shows less finesse physically and is less subtle in her characterization. Granted, she starts at a disadvantage, having to deliver her first monologue after a particularly gruelling routine of kitchen gymnastics; it's hard to make a strong first impression while out of breath. Still, in her mouth, the poetry of Lavery's dialogue often sounds forced, whereas Young finds an emotional connection to each odd turn of phrase. ("We agreed that retro jealousy over past lovers was a waste of cosmic time," is one of Todd's lines that's funny and cringeworthy at once.)
Director Kelly Straughan has her two actors perform in their natural accents rather than British ones, and for that, a million thanks. I'll always take a few moments of cognitive dissonance – no Canadian says the c-word this much – over 70 minutes of forced fakery.
Straughan allows the tension to slacken from time to time when it should build, while a scene near the end that takes place in the cellar and describes a nightmare conclusion left me confused.
The show is polished on the surface, however, and Straughan does successfully draw the audience in to the complex dynamics of Todd and Kali's hermetically sealed world. A particularly brutal moment comes when Todd eventually does strike back against Kali's barrage of physical attacks. It's frightening to see him manage to lose the moral and perhaps legal high ground in a single punch. The corpse of Strindberg gives this scene two embalmed thumbs up.
- Written by Bryony Lavery
- Directed by Kelly Straughan
- Starring Melissa-Jane Shaw and Jonathon Young
- A Seventh Stage Theatre production in association with Nightwood Theatre
- At the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space in Toronto
Stockholm runs until June 3.