Hazel, on stage in Toronto, has some sunny spots but could be gustier
Michael Stittle’s Hazel, presented by Port Moresby Productions at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, is set during the 1954 hurricane, the last of its kind to hit and devastate Toronto and southern Ontario. In the midst of heavy rain and wind, two gangsters struggle into a trailer with a bag of stolen cash—and wounds from a car accident—caused when their third attempted a double-cross.
While they figure out what to do with the money, knowing their boss is waiting, other weather wanderers appear, complicating the situation. It’s an intriguing set-up, but unlike great swaths of Ontario countryside after the hurricane, the plot doesn’t entirely hold water.
Key to the play is the dynamic between older career criminal Frank (Scott McCulloch), who is just about to retire from Toronto to Florida with his wife, and his partner, Joe (Tony Le), a young upstart who has largely turned to this life in an attempt to get out of debt. As we all know, if you’re ever in a life-or-death situation, being on the cusp of retirement will do you no favours, and a sack of cash is a handy symbol for temptation.
McCulloch acquits himself well as the man doing one final job; he has an edge of menace and a hardness in distant eyes that make you feel he might have broken a few fingers in his time. His flashbacks to a recent near-death experience are the play’s only self-consciously theatrical device, and were a bit confusing to me until the eerie motions begin to make sense at a later recurrence.
I found Le’s Joe charming and eager, but far more believable when trying to be likeable and exploring the potential for change; turns into violence or despair felt abrupt in comparison.
That being said, with the trajectory of the play’s action and the potential for simmering resentment that’s being developed, you expect there to be a more stunning resolution between the two, but the metaphorical (and physical) gun never goes off.
While the dialogue between the two men can get a bit stilted, and there seems to be much more to explore, there’s a sense of character and stakes between the two of them.
The same can’t quite be said for the others they encounter: Toivo (Pete McArthur), an immigrant nickel miner trying to return to Sudbury who speaks only in Finnish (with a wandering accent, but it’s a heck of an acting task for a non-speaker); and Lauren (Helly Chester), an older woman who marches into the storm trying to find a dog, armed only with a hole-ridden umbrella and a flask.
While they were interesting in their own right, I found myself wondering why these characters in particular were in the play, despite presenting reasonable complications. If plot is “what happens” and story is “why does it matter,” they fulfilled the needs of the plot, rather than the needs of the story. This lead to an ending that felt rushed to me. Still, the actors find nice character moments; look out for a recurring motif in which biscuit-eating reveals personality.
The set is nicely put together, with the most arresting feature being the period-appropriate maps on the walls. The small theatre space is well-suited to being the inside of a claustrophobic trailer. I would recommend, however, sitting in the front; I did not, and because the seats aren’t raked, missed a lot of action that took place on or under the floor, which is important for a couple of revelations.
With some tweaks to the foundation, the show could be more solid. This hurricane didn’t blow me away, but there are benefits to weathering the storm.
- Hazel is playing until November 20, 2016 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East)
- Shows run Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm
- Tickets range from $15-20 and can be purchased by calling 416-845-9411 or in person at the box office
Photo of Helly Chester, Scott McCulloch and Tony Le provided by the company