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Sarah Booth and David Ferry in Blackbird, at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto.

Robert Harding

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
David Harrower
Directed by
David Ferry
Actors
David Ferry, Sarah Booth
Venue
Artscape Youngplace
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Thursday, December 11, 2014

Remember Canadian Stage five years ago? The dying days of Martin Bragg's tenure as artistic producer at the Toronto theatre company were marked by middling, often miscast productions of plays that had recently been hits in New York or London.

It was a dispiriting time, and Blackbird (a collaboration with Studio 180) was one of its final disappointments. Scottish writer David Harrower's 2005 play about a pedophile being confronted by his prey 15 years after the fact had made waves internationally – but seemed "little more than a sensational melodrama based around the biggest taboo" in its 2009 Canadian premiere, as I wrote at the time.

Well, Blackbird is not that at all, as a heart-stopping new indie production from director and actor David Ferry shows. You'll have to search for it – the play's being done on a tiny budget in a rehearsal room in Artscape Youngplace – but don't let the folding chairs scare you away.

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Harrower's script and Ferry's production did make me wonder if my earlier judgment had been correct at first. Both get off to slow, stilted starts: Una (Sarah Booth), now in her mid-20s, has tracked down Ray (David Ferry) at his new job in a new city. They enter a trash-strewn lunch room and Ray, who is now going by the name Peter, is terrified that the life he has built up since finishing a six-year prison sentence will come crashing down. But the two keep frustratingly talking around the situation in half-finished sentences that test the patience of an audience.

Once the scene-setting is done, however, Blackbird takes dark flight. Una and Ray begin to actually talk about what happened 15 years earlier, when she was 12 and he was 40, and they had what Una believed at the time was a love affair, but now understands was sexual abuse.

Or does Una understand that? What's dangerous about Harrower's play is that it allows us to see the world through the characters' eyes for a while – and dares us to get carried away by an improbable love story that ended tragically. Shakespeare's Juliet was only 13, after all, wasn't she?

First Una, then Ray tell us the story of the last day they saw each other – before he was arrested and before she was handed back over to her parents and a torturous court process that seems to have traumatized her as much as anything. They each have truly wrenching recollections.

But, after taking us into these unreliable memories of its now-adult protagonists, Blackbird shocks us back into the reality of what happened when another character enters the scene that makes us reconsider everything we have just heard.

Harrower has constructed a situation that puts the two layers of theatre into conflict with each other – the fantasy of collective imagination crashes into the truth of bodies in space. If that sounds abstract, it's because I can't say much more about the astonishing, disorienting climax without ruining it. It does allow Booth – who gives a complex performance of fragile bravado throughout – her most accomplished acting moment, however, as Una is overwhelmed by a mixture of jealousy and disgust.

Ferry gives a powerful performance as well: His Ray is plain but seductive and you see how a 12-year-old could easily believe in him – and how he might even believe in himself. Indeed, it makes us wonder how easily we all can be captivated by a seemingly unprepossessing outsider with a confident voice.

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As director, Ferry makes one significant mistake – he has the front-of-house manager come in dressed as a janitor before the show begins, to push trash around the stage half-heartedly. In Harrower's script, it's a mystery as to exactly what Ray does at his workplace – and his fervent denial that he is the janitor is meant to be one of many denials we're not sure whether to believe or not.

But otherwise Ferry's production is riveting and shows Blackbird wasn't the play of the day, but a drama that will last.

Toronto's indie theatre companies have given us a number of memorable, low-budget production of plays that might once have been reflexively slotted into a Canadian Stage season before it went off in its current, idiosyncratic, interdisciplinary direction. (Ferry has been responsible for several of these passion projects.) Personally, I'm much happier with the ecology now – even if it requires theatregoers to do a little more work to find the good stuff.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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