Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre presents Canadian playwright Lisa Codrington’s Up The Garden Path
Obsidian Theatre’s production of Up The Garden Path is a delight. It’s rare for me to be so completely transported from lights up to lights down. Recently I’ve seen some lackluster theatre that has felt, to me at least, stiff and irrelevant. But this show is a refreshing gift and I thank everyone involved for inspiring me when I needed it most.
This is the story of Rosa, an orphaned seamstress from Barbados looking to find a home and purpose. The play takes Rosa and us to some very unexpected and offbeat places. The story opens with Rosa seeking refuge in the home of Alma, her son, Edmund, and daughter, Amelia. (Here, Arlene Duncan, Raven Dauda, and Ronnie Rowe Jr., imbue this family’s rapid-fire bickering with an endearing affection.) Rosa offers her services as dress maker, but suddenly finds herself on a plane to Canada, disguised as a man, to take Edmund’s place as farm worker.
In Ontario’s Niagara area, she meets her employer, Isaac, who sets her to work on his vineyard, but not picking grapes as she expected, as a live scarecrow for the starlings that threaten his crop. He’s also an “interpreter” host at Fort George and some of Alex McCooeye’s funniest moments are his lapses into bad stand up comedy as he tries to engage the guests. His sister, Laura, is an aspiring actress obsessed with Shaw’s Saint Joan. With a manic intensity, Sochi Fried struts and frets up a storm in the role, conveying Laura’s passion for performance and highlighting the poor woman’s lack of focus and restraint.
These characters alone make the play colourful enough, but then out pops Marcel Stewart as Richard, the ghost of a black soldier from the War of 1812. For a century, he has been trying to fully die, to move on from the site of his death. Seeking Rosa’s help in this endeavour, Stewart is full of bravado and aching vulnerability that compliments Virgilia Griffith’s wary yet determined and adventurous Rosa.
Playwright Lisa Codrington has crafted a fast-paced, thematically rich and startlingly funny narrative. She jumps back and forth between the family Rosa left in Barbados—enduring a hurricane—and Rosa’s attempts to satisfy all her responsibilities in Canada. Each scene builds in excitement, cutting away to another place just as the tension is highest.
Director Phillip Akin enhances the impact of this structure by blurring the edges of geographical space. We know that things are happening in different places, sometimes thousands of miles apart, but he stages them in such a way that the actors almost seem to be sharing the space in a way that goes deeper than just the physical reality of the open stage.
One of my favourite moments of creative staging was during the scene when Rosa’s plane takes off during a storm. The actors playing the family she left behind use the same bench that represents Rosa’s seat on the plane. Akin could so easily have removed her from the home she is leaving and placed her on the other side of the stage, but by having the people she’s leaving behind there physically beside her somehow turns the moment into something less stagy, more intimate and resonant.
All of these characters are genuinely lovable. That sounds trite, but it’s actually quite rare to pull this off well. Even while they sometimes work hard to seem authoritative or threatening, you can’t help but feel the compassion and empathy bubbling up from the core. While I do not believe that characters have to be likeable to be compelling, but when a script and performances truly achieve this, it is very special.
The clothes perfectly suit the late 1960s world of the play, but Anna Treusch has taken great care to give them a distinct timelessness, as if these characters exist across time rather than in it. And her backdrop of suspended doors and shutters is both whimsical and subtly oppressive. Looming over these people are the environments that place great demands on them, yet there is always the opportunity for a change of scene, a new role, a door to something new.
This is a fun, tender and uplifting story, brought to vivid life in this dazzling production. Don’t miss out!
- Up The Garden Path is playing at until April 10 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
- Tickets are $20 to $35
- Tickets can be purchased by phone (416-504-7529) or online
Photo of Virgilia Griffith, Sochi Fried and Marcel Stewart by Lyon Smith