Dramaturged and directed by native Kingston and award-winning playwright Judith Thompson, the collective creation Welcome to My Underworld consists of nine character pieces based on the performers’ real-life experiences. These performers, representing a diversity of abilities and backgrounds, articulate the struggles their characters undergo on account of their identity or state of life. The artistic goal of this production is informed by its affiliation with RARE theatre, an endeavor founded by Thompson, whose mission is to serve “communities that have expressed a need not only to be recognized but to effect, systemic radical change through the art of theatre.” While one piece was excluded on account of a performer’s illness on the night I went, the show was no less effective in getting this central message across, through the compelling scenes enacted by the rest of the performers. In this regard, Theatre Kingston has chosen a powerful and provocative production to open its 2019-20 season.
Beginning with a recurring young character, portrayed by Grace Thompson, whose reluctance to grow up manifests in the form of an imaginary friend named Mara, the production weaves through different stories that are each connected by the thread of social invisibility in some way. Though some experiences are clearly inspired by the personal pasts of the performers, the line between real events and fictional moments is hard to draw at times. This is especially the case with moments of acute danger and trauma enacted in pieces such as that of Carolyn Hetherington’s elderly hospital patient in a state of drug-induced paranoia and Bilal Baig’s transient South Asian man who is disowned for being gay. Both examples, however, are performed effectively by the actors; Hetherington’s articulate, conviction-filled delivery and Baig’s pregnant questions to the audience about the value of his own personhood are highlights in the production.
While the pieces are enacted both feelingly and credibly, for the most part, the links connecting each of them together are sometimes not well-defined. The section in which Thompson’s character, for instance, now an adult, is apprehended by police and placed in a psych ward is not clearly contextualized in relation to her childhood imaginary friend and earlier reluctance to grow up. The order in which the pieces were performed also did not seem to have an overarching rationale or narrative scheme; this made the show a bit confusing to follow at times. Yet the pieces in question are always vivid and full of life, aided in part by the economical technical effects.
Brett Haynes’s minimalist set suits the purposes of this kind of production, with the small number of pieces onstage being used efficiently by the actors for the different scenarios which are portrayed (save for the music stand and instruments, which are used consistently by performer Olivia Shortt). The reflections of both tree branches and imposing figures that are projected onto a curtain at the back of the stage are particularly effective, though this feature is regrettably not utilized for most of the pieces. General lighting is also on point, being appropriately dimmed or heightened to match the dramatic mood at hand. Most ingenious is the use of the actors themselves to provide both object and human sound effects to complement other pieces in progress, as well as saxophone music by Shortt for atmospheric effect.
Difficult to take in at times, though ultimately rewarding, Welcome to My Underworld is an ambitious project which seeks to give new purpose to the products of collective creation. In regards to logistics, the production as a whole could benefit from a bit more structure and interrelations between the experiences it relays. On a performance level, however, it is exceedingly thought-provoking and powerful, introducing the simple idea of empathy for those who are too often left in the shadows.
Welcome to My Underworld continued until Oct. 27 at the Grand Theatre in Kingston, ON. For information and tickets, see:
Welcome to My Underworld, a Rare Theatre Collective Creation
Dramaturged and directed by Judith Thompson
Performers and playwrights: Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Grace Thompson, Radha S. Menon, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington and Olivia Shortt
Crew: Simone Dalton: Playwright
Brett Haynes: Set Designer & Rare Theatre General Manager
Olivia Shortt: Musician, Composer & Sound Designer
Anne Marie Mortensen: Stage Manager
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.