I was expecting the tragedy of a long lost love unfold. But Letters to Annabelle by Panfish Productions, now playing at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, has exceeded all expectations. What has unfolded instead is an immersive story of longings, desires, and uncovered truths.
Set during the Prohibition era, the story follows a Canadian soldier named Liam (Kyle Bailey) and his desperate search for a woman named Annabelle; a woman he meets at a speakeasy before his departure for war during a one-night stand that promised everlasting love. Liam is young, idealistic, and as the bar owner Louis-Andre (Alexander Thomas) warns, hopelessly and fatally in love.
We first meet him during his return from war back in the speakeasy where he first met Annabelle. It is here that the rest of the story comes to life and the truths of each character is uncovered from the surface.
Letters to Annabelle takes place at the Mây Cafe, a restaurant and bar and not a speakeasy during the 1920s but nonetheless serves as the perfect venue for the show. My experience with immersive theatre is limited, if not none at all, and when the audience was told that this would be an immersive experience before the show began, I panicked a little. I was afraid that it would mean improvised audience participation, an interaction I wasn’t exactly prepared for.
There was no improvised audience participation (thank god). There was audience participation, however, and it came in forms of whoops and whistles when burlesque performers came on stage or when the piano player helped transition from one scene to the next, waving her hand to the audience as if telling them to stop.
What the immersive part of the show really meant was how the boundary between stage and audience became even more minimal. Actors/characters would walk from one end of the space to the next, crossing paths with audience members in some cases as waitresses and bartenders of Mây Cafe continued to take drink orders from audience members.
Letters to Annabelle utilizes the entire space of Mây Cafe, transforming the Toronto present-time restaurant and bar into a Prohibition era speakeasy where the bar owner isn’t exactly as benevolent and generous as he seems, and beneath the feathers and the sparkles and lace of Maggie May (Vanessa Trenton) is something more broken, vulnerable, and fervent.
With performances from Toronto’s very own burlesque community, the choreography of the show is phenomenal. The fight scenes were also choreographed well, with the demands of physicality, acting, makeup, and costumes coming together seamlessly. The writing (written by Stephen Joffe) is astute, heartbreaking, and at moments, poetic.
At the end of the show, we were told that if we enjoyed the show, spread the word; if we didn’t, pretend we were never there. But I was there. I enjoyed it all. I experienced every moment of Letters to Annabelle intimately, fidgeting nervously during fight scenes, applauding at the end of the burlesque performances, and truthfully, tearing up at the final scenes. So here I am, spreading the word.
- Letters to Annabelle plays at MAY (876 Dundas Street West)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1026), from the Fringe Club at Scaddling Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warnings: Not recommended for persons under 18 years of age, gunshots, sexual content, smoking, audience participation, nudity, mature language
- This venue is accessible, but the washrooms are not.
- Wednesday 5th July, 07:00pm
- Thursday 6th July, 07:00pm
- Friday 7th July, 07:00pm
- Saturday 8th July, 02:00pm
- Sunday 9th July, 02:00pm
- Tuesday 11th July, 07:00pm
- Wednesday 12th July, 07:00pm
- Thursday 13th July, 07:00pm
- Friday 14th July, 07:00pm
- Saturday 15th July, 02:00pm
- Sunday 16th July, 02:00pm
Graphic Design by Dahlia Katz