Native culture and social work collide in A Spirit’s Face playing at the Aki Studio Theatre in Toronto
A Spirit’s Face, presented by Spiderbones Performing Arts and playing at the Aki Studio Theatre (Daniels Spectrum) is a heartfelt piece. It’s clear that Jeff D’Hondt’s script is sincere and comes from a dark yet loving place. A lot of care has gone into this production, but it didn’t quite reach me.
This is the story of Jake (Cole Alvis) and Hunter (Madison Walsh)—both social workers, both damaged individuals who grew on up on the same native reserve—trying to forge a relationship while healing from old wounds. Their shared emotional baggage becomes their bond. The ghosts of abusive, afflicted and dying parents loom over their professional and personal lives.
We first meet Jake in a hospital bed where we discover he doesn’t have much time left. Hunter is his palliative care provider. At first, she’s reluctant to take him on because of their romantic history, but—of course—she does or there would be no story.
What follows is a fragmented exploration of their relationship as Jake undergoes a special procedure whereby he is able to relive his happiest memory as he dies. My date for the evening pointed out that, on the surface, it reminded her of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a non-linear exploration of a love affair and break-up captured through a fictional, metaphorical technology.
Their relationship is spent swapping stories of their painful pasts. Although each of them deals with pain and suffering professionally, they’re surprisingly inept at handling it on a personal level. This is what sparks the attraction and conflict. They are compelled to poke at each others’ wounds in a series of challenges and can’t quite get their shit together to be fully supportive.
I found the script and performances a little clunky. Emotional shifts are quick and jarring. They make sense, but don’t feel quite right. I could sense dramatic decisions being made rather than life happening.
Strangely, my favourite moment was the most cartoonish: a scene in which Jake helps Hunter live-out her erotic fantasy of seducing a palliative care patient. It’s a scene of perfect tension—at once funny, sexy, uncomfortable and poignant.
I was most taken by the design elements of the show. The set is minimalist: a stylized bed and two small stools that are shoved around as the action demands. There are some stunning video projections that play behind the actors. They provide a vibrant backdrop that helps flesh out the environments, but they also serve as a dreamscape representation of their thoughts and emotions.
There are some intriguing ideas here, but they don’t quite pay off. Hunter believes that powerful emotional experiences (especially formative ones) have the ability to change our DNA—our cells adapt to emotional stimuli and shape our physical being. Like the wounded animal imagery, however, it is often restated, but never truly explored.
Hunter has kept a mask that her father made before he died. It’s a haunting prop that gets significant stage time—a token of his mentorship of her. There’s probably a lot of native mythology woven into the text that my date and I simply didn’t pick up on. We sensed some essence of it in their conversations about dreams and healing, but we’re not familiar enough to grasp all the allusions.
There is ample banter about social work—its joys and frustrations. These references are framed so that they can be appreciated by laypeople. I got the jokes, understood the references to the ethical and emotional challenges of the profession, but I figure they’d be more resonant for those who provide care for a living.
This is a play that I—at least partially—understood, but didn’t quite feel. If you’re a care provider, you’ll likely find kindred spirits here… and A Spirit’s Face deserves a chance at your heart.
- A Spirit’s Face is playing at the Daniel’s Spectrum—Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas Street East) until June 14.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2PM
- Evening tickets are $20, matinees are $15 (with $10 discount tickets available, see website for details)
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416-531-1402) or at the door
Photo of Cole Alvis and Madison Walsh by Neil Silcox