Gather around the campfire, children, for a story, scary but true, of how Karen Hines lost money on the Toronto real estate market. Yes, it can happen, and it can happen to you. Despite what the realtors who plaster their sunny smiles all around town say, sometimes the property ladder can be more of a chute.
Crawlspace, Hines's darkly comic, cautionary monologue now on at Soulpepper, tells the story of how the playwright's own personal real-estate bubble burst after she bought what was then the smallest house for sale in Toronto. Her macabre tale of trying to salvage something, anything, from the wreckage feels like a Mike Holmes episode scripted by Franz Kafka.
"I remembering thinking, 'This is Canada, there are rules,'" Hines says, at one point. She's no longer so naive.
In 2006, despite being an artist with fluctuating income and a decent deal on rent in Little Italy, Hines felt she had to get on that so-called property ladder – and feared she was already behind her peers. Indeed, as she puts it in her play, she saw that ladder flying away like one of those rope versions that dangle out the door of a helicopter in an action movie – and decided to run, leap and grab on to the bottom rung before it disappeared from sight.
With the help of a handsome realtor in a pork-pie hat, the diminutive Hines purchased what was billed as a coach house – though that description turned out to be less than accurate. Indeed, most of the MLS listing turned out to be a piece of creative writing, notably the claim that "EVRYTHG HAS BN DN" – a phrase Hines repeats with increasing irony in the show, through clenched teeth, swallowing the vowels like bitter pills.
The "coach house" turned out to be a poorly flipped garage, with defects that include floors that didn't meet the walls and a walk-in closet that had been built onto a neighbouring property. Then there was the matter of the crawlspace – the lights dim, and eerie sounds emanate every time Hines says the word – from which, just when you think things can't get any worse, an odour begins to emanate.
Hines is a performer and Governor-General's Award-nominated playwright best known for a series of alt-theatre shows she starred in as a Bouffon character called Pochsy – though many television viewers will remember her from her deadpan performance as segment producer Karen on Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom.
There's a bit of dark clowning in her performance in Crawlspace: She speaks slowly in a detached tone, with occasional unsettling bursts of mania. She seems like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown – and when you hear about the credit-card debt she racked up, right to the so-called "suicide limit" you'll understand why.
It's not quite a solo show: An "onstage performance associate" (Sascha Cole) sits to the side of the stage behind a music stand to interrupt Hines whenever she strays from a script that she says she has run past a lawyer.
"No one did anything illegal," Hines says. "I'm supposed to say that."
Whether or not a lawyer was actually consulted, Hines tells her story in non-specifics – her property moving from Parkdale to Leslieville to Corktown, depending on the scene.
Crawlspace has similarly travelled a lot – it had a previous short Toronto run in a small Kensington Market performance space and Hines has also performed it in "house parties" in living rooms across the city.
At Soulpepper, she's doing it in a black box theatre, the Tank House, where the floor plan of a condo has been marked out by set designer Michelle Tracey. It's a roomier room and, as no one is specifically credited as a director, you wish an outside eye would come in to tighten it up just a little, both in the pacing, and in Hines's movements, which can sometimes look like wandering.
There's a theory that all the great American plays are, at their core, about real estate – the Younger family looking to move up from an apartment to a house in A Raisin in the Sun; the unscrupulous hustlers attempting to unload worthless parcels of Florida land in Glengarry Glen Ross; the haunted home with a Native American in the attic in August: Osage County.
Crawlspace may be a humble Canadian counterpoint to the genre – but amid all the real-estate hysteria in this city, it perhaps provides the perfect answer politicians have been looking for on how to cool the overheated market. Forget restricting foreign buyers – just purchase all buyers a ticket to this chilling show and they'll think twice on their own.
Crawlspace continues to April 15 (soulpepper.ca).