Review: Turtleneck (EmerCENce Theatre)

Photo of Karen Scobie, Bryce Fletch, Steven VlahosTurtleneck arrives on the Toronto stage, “doesn’t get much better.”

Let me sum up emerGENce Theatre‘s Turtleneck playing at the Tree of Life Theatre in five words: it is so absurdly good.

Brilliantly cast, darkly hilarious, unexpected–there is just no way this show should be missed.

Vickie (Karen Scobie) is a modern ‘woman with a past’ recovering from sex addiction. Introduced to Louis (Bryce Fletch) by activist Darcy (Annie Tuma), things appear to be moving forward—until Vickie’s secret past bursts back into her life.

Written by Brandon Crone, Turtleneck couches its commentary on men’s negative relationships to women under the guise of sex and porn addiction. Fletch’s Louis is a nervous, rambling figure. A recovering pornography addict, his charm and insecurities create an uncomfortable mix. Fletch delivers a character whose motivations, while coming from the right place, force Vickie to be an emotional crutch.

Early in the play, Louis confesses his difficulties with becoming intimate after his recovery, resulting in his inability to have sex. Vickie attempts to calm him, but finds it difficult as he refuses her. She snaps “stop being a baby” and is immediately rejected. He tries to get her to apologize, arguing she should understand his position.

No matter what his intentions, Louis demands his point of view be the relevant perspective. He is the lesser of many evils over the course of an hour and a half. I have to say, kudos to Fletch who becomes an almost silent presence for the rest of the play. Even when he wasn’t speaking, several of us in the audience kept leaning over to watch his reactions as the story unfurled.

Similarly, Sean Jacklin’s Brian is a character who haunts the stage even when he’s nowhere to be seen. Darcy’s no-good, lazy, potentially sociopathic brother, Brian acts as an obsessive figure who thinks Vickie’s past makes her open and obligated to his infatuation with her.

In any other actor’s hands, I have no doubt Brian could have been marginally charming—to the detriment of the story. Jacklin and director Brandon Nicoletti never let Brian be anything but what he is: a creep. He got a few laughs out of the audience, but you knew, sitting there, that no one liked him.

Instead, he was an eerie, childish figure whose dark fantasies become part of an underlying thread regarding Darcy’s own aggressive stance in helping others. And as for Tuma as Darcy, she nails her part, at times grating only because her need to help blinds her to letting Vickie be more than a nameless victim.

The real comedy goldmine, though, was Steven Vlahos as Roy, whose relationship to Vickie I won’t spoil. Likely born to play the role, Vlahos is terrifying and hilarious by turns. I can’t describe the role better than the character himself: “I make bad first impressions” he states after hitting Louis in the face with a door, slinging his arm over his shoulder as he tells him to tip his chin up to stop the bleeding.

It’s funny that Turtleneck‘s biggest weakness is Vickie. Not—and let me be very clear about this—Scobie, who is great. Scobie delivers an internal struggle through her performance, but the script doesn’t really back her up.

For a play that is actively concerned with how women are treated by men, how their sexuality and strength is always placed in the shadow of their experiences with the patriarchy, it spends a lot of time on male characters.

The last half of the play is almost entirely men hanging with each other while Darcy and Vickie are never alone together. By the conclusion, I realized there were some serious creative limits in a story about women who are hopelessly trapped. We don’t get to see Vickie as more than a mythic, sexual character.

I think the decision to have primarily male voices is purposeful. Unfortunately, for me—especially with the show’s ending—it undermined the play’s core values.

Don’t get me wrong, however: the play is fantastic. I point it out because despite this, Turtleneck still manages to deliver something unique. Rather than hide these failings, between direction and acting, I left the theatre feeling encouraged to talk about these issues.

Theatre doesn’t get much better than that.

Details

  • Turtleneck runs until October 8th at the Tree of Life Theatre (888 Dupont St.)
  • Shows run Friday to Saturday at 8pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm
  • Tickets range from $15-$25 and can be purchased online here or at the Tree of Life Theatre prior to the show.
  • Show contains discussions and depictions of violence and graphic sexuality
  • Recommended audience age is 16+

Photo of Karen Scobie, Bryce Fletch, and Steven Vlahos by Colleen Yates

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