Review: Even this old town was a Forest (Birdtown & Swanville)

william_ellis_-_photo_by_natalie_novakBirdtown & Swanville presents an episodic play of mystery, myth, misery, and survival in Toronto

Birdtown & Swanville’s Even This Old Town Was A Forest, playing at The Theatre Centre, is a performance-driven tale of mystery, myth, misery, and survival. It’s funny though so don’t let those last four words turn you off.

Even This Old Town Was A Forest gives us the story of sisters Mary and Becky as they travel from England to 18th century Toronto – with Mary’s fiancé William, and Becky’s husband Jonathan – to build a new life. Once there, the group meets Abequa, a First Nations girl who has an odd ailment and has literally lost her father. The group must face the elements if they hope to survive, but they are also taunted by a monster who is forever in their midst.

The show is presented much like a novel with a prologue, chapters, and an epilogue, all projected behind the stage. That being said, it felt like a series of connected short stories sharing characters as opposed to a traditional narrative with a hard through-line.

Jon Blair played William with dim-witted brilliance. His devotion to the utterly uninterested Mary (Naomi Skwarna) was akin to a hopeless romantic’s devotion to rejection. Skwarna’s looks flipped between indifference and downright disdain, and drove the hilarity of the proposal scene between the pair, which was a highlight.

William Ellis, credited as The Monster, was the standout performance of the night. His cadence and tone, with even the simplest piece of dialogue, were comic genius. My personal favourite was Ellis’ dance routine during a scene transition. It felt like Halloween at Studio 54 and I didn’t want it to end.

Norman Yeung and Donna Maloney as the married Jonathan and Becky were great supporting characters. Maloney as the proper Becky plays a loving foil to Mary, discouraging her flights of fancy while attempting to keep an air of elegance. Becky loses composure only with Jonathan, the flamboyant poet, and their exaggerated moments of intimacy had everyone laughing.

Cara Gee as Abequa, is the rock upon which the play is built. Gee played Abequa with an innocent strength. Abequa’s emotion was the heartbeat of the show, and everything rose and fell with her actions and reactions. Gee and Ellis’ interactions were also well done, their simple back and forth kept the story moving while revealing just enough to add intrigue.

Costume Designer Vanessa Fischer helped set the time period of the show with the characters dressed as one would expect people would at the time. The costumes had special impact as the set was sparse with little indication as to the actual landscape. Her choices for Ellis’ Monster allowed him to add a flourish to his performance, which provided laughs for all. The headpiece was particularly well done.

Reflecting on Even This Old Town Was A Forest, I felt it was all about the performances. The overall plot and individual stories had some intrigue but at just under two hours there were some moments that dragged. What helped keep things moving were the people that brought it life, and the performers deserve high praise for this.


  • Even This Old Town Was A Forest is playing until October 23, 2016 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Shows runs Tuesday to Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 2pm, with an additional matinee Saturday at 2pm
  • Tickets are $25, with limited PWYC on the 22nd and 23rd, and can be purchased online or through the box office at 416-538-0988

Photo of William Ellis by Natalie Novak