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A scene from Taking Care of Baby.

John Gundy

3.5 out of 4 stars

Taking Care of Baby
Written by
Dennis Kelly
Directed by
Birgit Schreyer Duarte
Miranda Calderon, Richard Clarkin, Astrid Van Wieren
Storefront Theatre

Can you handle the truthiness? Taking Care of Baby, a 2007 play by British writer Dennis Kelly, is about how hard it is for humans to accept the idea that truth is relative. If you can get past the slipperiness of its own form, it will provide that rare experience – a night at the theatre that is both brain-expanding and hair-raising.

Kelly is known, of late, for his book for the hit musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda – playing in New York and London and coming soon to a Mirvish theatre near you. But don't bring the kids to this one. "The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence," a voice-over and television screen tells us at the start of Birgit Schreyer Duarte's inventive indie production at the Storefront Theatre.

Taking Care of Baby's main interview subjects are Donna McAuliffe (Miranda Calderon), a woman dubbed the "double death mom" in the tabloids, jailed for murdering her two children; Lynn (Astrid Van Wieren), Donna's mother and a one-time Labour politician who is attempting a political comeback after this personal tragedy; and Dr. Millard (the excellent Richard Clarkin), a psychologist who believes that Donna suffers from what he calls Leeman-Keatley Syndrome – and deserves treatment, not incarceration.

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Matters get more meta with a couple of other characters. Donna's estranged husband Martin (Dylan Trowbridge) appears – only to read out letters refusing to be involved in this "entertainment" about his hellish reality. Then, Kelly becomes part of the play as well – as an off-stage voice. Before you start Googling the exact details of the McAuliffe case, beware: Taking Care of Baby is billed as a "fake documentary play" and, in Schreyer Duarte's production, there is no attempt to trick the audience. The director welcomes your disbelief – and in her director's note criticizes real verbatim theatre for having "always claimed to offer audiences something as close as possible to the 'truth,' namely, 'reality.' "

I found this framing of the show problematic to say the least. Most verbatim and documentary theatre takes great pains to be transparent about its own truthiness – with playwrights almost always appearing as characters in their own plays, probing their own biases and drawing attention to the limitations of their research. In its theatricality, the form itself – more than film documentary and certainly reality TV – invites skepticism.

Taking Care of Baby doesn't really feel like any verbatim play I have seen, for that matter. It comprises monologues that are gripping but heightened – and never for a moment seem anything less than artfully composed.

To my mind, Kelly has mainly crafted a thought-provoking and suspenseful mystery (albeit a metatheatrical one). Details about Donna and the other characters are delivered in tantalizing drips, the action constantly re-framed by each new revelation.

For instance, Donna seems like a monster until we consider that she may be sick. (Calderon's measured performance is impressively impossible to get a firm grip on.) After the research behind Leeman-Keatley Syndrome is called into question,you may wonder to what extent do we let our sympathies be led by experts, journalists and judges – all humans, all fallible.

A tabloid journalist (a wonderfully spiky Craig Lauzon) who is a self-proclaimed sex addict appears to further underline this theme. Does our society use the narratives or metaphors of "illness" or "disease" to relieve people of responsibility for their actions and to make us feel safer from the possibility of evil?

In the depiction of Lynn, there is even more trickery at hand, preying on our natural suspicion of politicians. Van Wieren delivers an extroverted performance that gradually reveals its complexity.

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Schreyer Duarte gets almost uniformly strong performances from her actors – and her staging is occasionally fussy, but underlines many of the play's themes in a creative manner, playing with our perceptions with microphones and video screens. Pay attention for flashed subliminal images that riff on "Double Death." Never has a clip of Darkwing Duck been employed so horrifically. The terror that flaps in the night, indeed.

Also now on stage:

There are two unusual musical theatre options on the menu in Toronto at the moment. Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a creation of director and choreographer Tracey Power, has been playing to sell-out audiences since it was created at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver in 2012. It has now arrived at Theatre Passe Muraille as a presentation of Theatre 20.

A Cohen-esque poet and songwriter (Jonathan Gould) sits in a room in the Chelsea Hotel – where it is written on the walls that " you go to heaven once you've been to hell." Amid mounds of crumpled-up paper, this figure is visited by visions – two men, three women, all in white make-up, who seem to be ghosts, demons, muses, past lovers and possessed puppets. This sextet acts, sings, dances and plays all the instruments in a two-hour concert-cabaret that wends its way from Suzanne to Hallelujah.

To this Cohen fan, the whole enterprise seemed a mismatch of aesthetics. Cohen's wry humour is undermined by the broad clowning; the wit of his lyrics clashes with the whimsy of the Marshall McMahen and Barbara Clayden's designs; his poetry is undercut by overly literal choreography; and the sexiness of the songs is often sabotaged by the silliness of the staging. What can I say: Kazoos shaped like cigars don't scream Cohen to me.

But an overly frenetic first half gives way to a more palatable second as the characters become less hazily defined. The most resonant moments are the stillest ones, such as Sean Cronin's straightforward, sad singing of Famous Blue Raincoat. (Still, did we need the umbrellas?) Gould's singing is the solidest of an uneven bunch. "I was born like this, I had no choice – I was born with the gift of a golden voice," he says with melisma, the joke lost, but made up for in musicality. The audience members next to me on opening night seemed delirious about the whole affair.

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I had a better time at One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written, currently renting space at the Factory Theatre. Six improvisers (alumni of Second City or MadTV all), two back-up singers and a five-piece band make up a tune on the spot based on audience suggestions. Poorly executed, this could be excruciating. But this is a well-assembled troupe for long-form musical improv – with the whip-smart Jan Caruana and sensitive Alex Tindal mining emotional truth, and Ron Pederson and Reid Janisse letting loose as smarty-pants clowns. (Ashley Botting and Carly Heffernan round out the cast.)

The night I went, the suggested setting was Momofuku, a trendy noodle bar – which sparked off a musical romance that was also a very funny satire of the city's foodie culture. Caruana lifted every scene up a level – and the band led by Jordan Armstrong on keyboard showed off equally impressive improvisational skills. I can't speak for any future performances, of course.

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