Review: Swan (Little Black Afro Theatre)

bria-mclaughlin-and-michelle-chiu-2Swan is a “captivating horror story” on stage at the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

Aaron Jan’s Swan, produced by Little Black Afro Theatre and onstage now at Theatre Passe Muraille, is a captivating horror story set in Hamilton. The plot centres on an environmental activism group comprised of queer teenage girls, and their belated attempt to solve the gruesome murder of a swan ten years later. Featuring six women of colour who never even mention a man, Swan demonstrates that diversity should not be a buzzword but instead an indispensable aspect of telling compelling contemporary tales.

Race and gender inform the construction of story and development of characters in a narrative that focuses on how the mysteries of the past can affect the present. The four main girls in the environmental activism group — Joey (Bria McLaughlin), Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun) — are driven by a need to define themselves as distinct from their immigrant parents, to assert their value in a culture that either stereotypes, ignores, or brutalizes them.

After forming the club, it becomes known that they are lesbians, which allows the community to discount them further. As anyone with a history of teen girl queerdom is all too aware, the confusion of strong sexual/romantic with friendship feelings, coupled with social stigma, is a fertile ground for resentment and obsession to grow.

Their reputation does not stop Jenna-Lynn (Marina Moreira) from approaching with a desire to join them and ideas on a new direction for the club to take. Meanwhile, Bill (Michelle Chiu) is distancing herself from Joey, her adoptive sister, at the high school and also from her parents by quitting all their prescribed activities, such as swimming and violin. This is a highly skilled cast of performers, performing complex relationships with committed embodiment.

The above is the beginning of how things stand in 2004-2005, and the chronology switches between then and a decade later when Joey, the only one to have left Steeltown, returns and gets the gang together again because she’s tortured by a case the group never solved — the dismemberment of a swan.

As a horror aficionado, I know many people who will watch murder after fictional human murder but draw the line at any depiction of cruelty to an animal. Swan draws power from this common sensitivity — without making us see any bird blood — and develops an ominous atmosphere of wasted youth and thwarted ambitions, lives lived in amorphous fear, stagnation, and repressed identity.

The script could be tightened. There were points where my companion and I weren’t sure what was going on and why it was important to the plot, and not all of those scenes eventually paid off. Each character carried a heavily symbolic feather, and the brandishing/caressing/etc of them was overdone. Anxiety-provoking lighting effects could also have been used more judiciously.

On that note, I see no warning on their program or website, but this production includes extreme strobe lighting.

I did not realize before sitting down to write this review but I have seen this playwright’s work before, quite recently. At this year’s Fringe I enjoyed Rowing; I had only one small criticism, which was a minor instance of a common misogynist trope. I find it wonderful that the next offering of Jan’s is this woman-powered production. On the other hand, Rowing was taught with tension while Swan is a bit too loose. This gives me much hope that Jan’s future work will continue to be excellent and improve on both critical analysis and pace.

I also hopes he continues to present disturbing material, as that is very much up my darkened alley.

*Please note: Angela Sun is a writer for Mooney on Theatre. This did not in any conscious way affect the review*

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Photo of Bria McLaughlin and Michelle Chiu by Cesar Ghisilieri