When you go and see Barrel Crank (playing at SummerWorks), do yourself a favour and sit towards the back of the theatre. The risers hum and vibrate to the bass-heavy rumble of a distant waterfall. It’s a wonderful effect, and it draws you closer and closer to the centre of the play: Niagara Falls.
The titular Barrel Crank is Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive the plunge over the great cataract. She was a fascinating and often contradictory woman, and by framing her story as a self-described “vaudevillian romp”, the company of four actors seeks to explore her motivations, her experiences, and some of the mystique surrounding the falls.
Amy Nostbakken, playing Taylor, makes careful work of a difficult part. The script calls for her to flip from shrewish virago to vulnerable and wounded, but Nostbakken provides a firm spine and a calm self-assuredness that keep the character consistent. Muoi Nene and Trent Pardy both play multiple ensemble roles with glee and enthusiasm, and do some especially good movement work.
The standout, however, was Deanna Jones as the puckish narrator. Gleaming, grinning and more than a little sinister, Jones’ narrator was a joy to watch. If anything, the character may be a touch too strong: on several occasions, she was by far the most entertaining element of a scene which was supposedly about someone else entirely.
The writing is often clever, but both my companion and I felt that it sagged a little towards the middle. This may be a byproduct of the venue: for example, a slapstick scene about a theft would probably have been compelling with either more pairs of hands or a smaller stage. With 2-3 actors in a house the size of Theatre Passe Muraille, it’s difficult to generate enough kinetic energy to fill the space.
We also both felt that the piece would have benefited from more music. A pianist is listed in the progamme, but music was used sparingly. Having some vaudeville trills to underscore the more dramatic and physical moments would have helped to maintain the energy throughout the piece.
That being said, the show is not a lazy one. It would be trivially easy to write a trite love note to Edson Taylor and leave it at that, but this production gives due attention to pressing and relevant matters: Taylor’s poverty, the economic state of Niagara Falls, the allure of the falls, and the very real menace and danger they represent. As the narrator puts it, when we watch someone walking a tightrope across the falls, we don’t feel chills because we hope they might live…
All in all, it’s a good show. A perfectly entertaining hour, suitable for all ages, and a remarkably innovative look at a virtually unknown (yet fascinating) historical figure.
Runtime: ~60 minutes.
- Barrel Crank plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille mainspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue. (One block northeast of Queen and Bathurst.)
- Performance dates include: Sun. the 12th, 5:30 PM; Tue. the 14th, 10:30 PM; Fri. the 17th, 5:30 PM; Sat. the 18th, 8:00 PM.
- All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at http://ticketwise.ca, By phone by calling the Lower Ossington Box Office at 416-915-6747, in person at the Lower Ossington Box Office (located at 100A Ossington Avenue) Mon. – Sun. 12PM-7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)
- Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.