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theatre review

Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs"

In a small theatre at the top of Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, a new play by Quebec's Carole Fréchette opened on Wednesday evening. Whatever you do, don't go see it.

You can watch anything else, of course – and there are hundreds of shows waiting for you on television and all those movies to catch up with at the multiplex. With all those options available, why on earth would you want to see Fréchette's alternatingly charming and chilling deconstruction of Charles Perrault's folk tale Bluebeard?

Sure, Nicole Underhay gives a seductive central performance as Grace, a young woman named after a princess who finds herself married to a modern-day prince.

Henry – played by a suitably poker-faced Rick Roberts – sweeps her off her feet and into a giant mansion that makes Downton Abbey look like a teardown. He has only one small request, however: Grace can go wherever she wants, but she mustn't enter the small room at the end of the narrow hallway at the top of the hidden staircase.

Well, curiosity being what it is, Grace – who seems perfect on the surface, but is troubled underneath – cannot resist.

Fréchette's play opens with her on the third step of the staircase, the voices of her proud mother (Sarah Dodd) and doubtful sister Anne (Claire Calnan) urging caution or encouragement like life-sized versions of the shoulder-holstered angels and devils in a cartoon.

These conversations between sisters and mothers are achingly recognizable, but Fréchette also deftly demonstrates how the actual dynamics of our relationships don't always match up with what we imagine in our heads. "Who do you think you are, Cinderella?" Anne attacks.

Still, promise me you won't see The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs.

True, Fréchette's parable gets more complex as it evolves. A snooping maid named Jenny (Raquel Duffy) catches Grace in her transgressive act, while Henry returns earlier than expected from a business trip with roses and champagne. And, unlike in Bluebeard, the action doesn't come to a sudden violent conclusion when the princess enters the forbidden room.

Indeed, is there actually a tortured man in the room at the top of the stairs, or is the bleeding body Grace discovers just a stand-in for the secrets (or secret thoughts) all romantic partners keep from one another?

Weyni Mengesha's production certainly shows her to be one of the more versatile directors in Toronto at the moment. Following the raucous realism of her recent Soulpepper hit, Kim's Convenience, she now explores more psychological territory on a bare, black stage that is lit with surgical precision by Bonnie Beecher. Every movement, every sound is carefully calculated and calibrated.

The only place where Fréchette stumbles – and Mengesha doesn't catch her – is in the depiction of the foreign maid. It's an attempt to bring the larger world into the very sheltered world of her play, but Jenny is simply unconvincing as a character.

As you'd find out if you went to see this play. Which you won't, you aren't.

There are so many other excellent plays you could see in Canada right now. Volcano Theatre's fine production of Goodness in Vancouver, for instance. Or Philip Akin's revival of his excellent production of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in Halifax.

And War Horse, of course.

Go to one of those. I permit you to attend any of them. They're all yours to discover.

Just do not buy tickets to the Tarragon Theatre to see this little gem that is The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. It's the only thing I ask of you. I can trust you, right?

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs runs until April 8.

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs

  • Written by Carole Fréchette
  • Translated by John Murrell
  • Directed by Weyni Mengesha
  • Starring Nicole Underhay
  • At the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto
  • 3.5 stars