King of the Castle is a subversive piece of psychological theatre by House of Rebels Theatre that explores childhood trauma and abandonment in an emotionally draining, yet cathartic, hour at 2016’s Toronto Fringe Festival.
When you read King of the Castle’s synopsis, there’s a sense of what I would describe as whimsy attached to it; a young man finds one of his imaginary friends murdered and must reconnect with the other figments in his mind in order to solve the mystery. It’s a concept that made me imagine a brightly coloured set contrasted with a hard boiled detective story. King of the Castle is nothing like that.
The play is raw. It’s cruel. It’s twistedly beautiful. The colourful set I imagined was a stark, barebones affair that felt like a post apocalyptic wasteland, fallen to waste with neglect and despair. The mystery wasn’t hard-boiled, it was basically a lynch mob just trying to figure out who was going to get hanged, and very quickly I realized this show was nothing like what I was expecting, and good for House of Rebels for tricking me.
I’m someone who, socially, lived a miserable childhood. I was bullied incessantly, betrayed by people I thought were my friends and honestly struggled with suicide from a very young age. One of the few things I took comfort in was my very large collection of stuffed animals that I turned to when I felt lonely. Of course as I grew up I became less involved with my furry friends and eventually a large amount of them stayed in a basket until my mom gave them to charity, where I hope they brought other children as much comfort and joy as they did me.
I mention this story because King of the Castle was a very difficult show for me to sit through because it’s basically about someone who went through something similar. Instead of being able to think happy thoughts about all his imaginary playmates going on to help other children however, his friends are still stuck in his head going insane through neglect and loneliness. They’re not overjoyed to see him when he returns to them, they’re justifiably pissed off and want answers, and every single one of the actors captures that horrifying blend of rage and fragility that made me start to take their side, despite the fact at least one of them was a cold blooded murderer.
This was certainly helped by Tyler Hagemann’s performance as Gordon, the aforementioned neglectful one. I was first introduced to Hagemann in his performance in Echo Production’s staging of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde last December. Hagemann is really good at playing sympathetic characters that are equally selfish and kind of horrible, and Gordon fits comfortably within that style; we feel for him because he’s clearly damaged and trying to fix things, but he’s also completely unable to empathize with anybody that isn’t actively helping him and is very comfortable throwing people aside when he doesn’t feel he needs them anymore.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the show was how it gave us insight into all of Gordon’s friends; why they were created, what role they played and how they helped him cope, from the impotent rage of Jada Rifkin’s Pepper, the pubescent lust that spawned Olivia Clarke’s Lucy and the quiet gentleness of Nick May’s Edgar, every one of the imaginary friends was someone I wanted to know more about, to understand how they helped Gordon and equally why they had been so hurt by him. It made the eventual climax and resolution so painful yet necessary.
To reiterate, King of the Castle is hard to watch. It’s uncompromising and bleak and definitely not something to watch if you’re looking for some frothy genre blending. If you’re looking for some powerful work from a talented group of artists, however, it’s definitely worth the ticket.
- King of the Castle plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace. (125 Bathurst St)
- Tickets are $12 at the door and in advance, and can be bought online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Honest Ed’s Alley, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warnings: Mature Language, Sexual Content.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible by use of an alternate route. Please arrive early and speak with the House Manager.
- Wednesday June 29th, 10:00 pm
- Saturday July 2nd, 12:00 pm
- Sunday July 3rd, 06:30 pm
- Tuesday July 5th, 04:45 pm
- Thursday July 7th, 09:15 pm
- Friday July 8th, 04:00 pm
- Sunday July 10th, 07:30 pm
Photo courtesy of the company