Review: The Tenth Muse (Filament Incubator)

Toronto’s Filament Incubator presents The Tenth Muse, a play by Julie Foster

It is easy to walk past the black door of 56 Kensington Avenue and not notice it’s there. Yet downstairs in a small concrete basement, known as Kensington Hall (said with tongue in cheek one assumes) an exciting indie performance of budding playwright Julie Foster’s The Tenth Muse, presented by Filament Incubator, is taking place.

The play is an exploration of the life of Sappho, an ancient Greek poet whose work is thought to have celebrated romantic love between women. Told in the form of flashbacks, each chapter of Sappho’s life is introduced by three academics who are lecturing (and imposing their own views and hang-ups) on the the poet’s writings, relationships and mysterious death. We are then transported to ancient Lesbos where the action unfolds.

Anyone who has suffered through a graduate degree or has attended a conference on an obscure topic will instantly recognize the hilarious endless equivocations, hedgings and patronizing smugness of the three academics who condescendingly share their beliefs about Sappho all while throwing shade at the youngest, and least accomplished, member of their group who is not quite yet fluent in Greek.

The performance boasts a solid four-person cast who play 16 different characters. Olivia Croft, who plays Sappho, brings a certain fierceness to the role and manages to capture a spirit of brooding and the struggle to attain an ideal that continues to remain elusive (it sounds precious, but, I promise it isn’t).

Kelsey Dann, who was my favourite actor in the piece, was able to slide seamlessly between characters as Sappho’s girlfriend, young and grown daughter Cleïs, mother (also named Cleïs), an academic and elder of Lesbos. Dann brings a different energy and air that give depth and genuineness to each character.

Jack Comerford brings a lightness and much comedic relief to the performance as the academic scandalized by the fact that the subject of his life-long study had lesbian relationships, the bridegroom oblivious of his bride’s relationship with Sappho and the poet’s mischievous and avuncular brother, Charaxus. Jovan Kovic presents some touching moments as Sappho’s husband whose love is unrequited and is intimidating as her unnamed menacing father.

One of the themes that The Tenth Muse deals with is the construction of history or if there is an objective version of “truth.” To that end the stylized way in which the academics deliver their lectures bolsters the point, however, I wish that that idea had been developed more as the story itself was told without much nuance. The relationship dynamics seem to be very modern, and the interactions between characters had a tendency to lapse into the stereotypical.

While Foster says in the program that this is her own interpretation of Sappho’s life and is in no way a definitive version, the way the story is told does not contribute to the questioning of “the nature of truth” which we were set-up to expect as a main motif.

Most of the costumes helped us to quickly identify who each new character on stage was, however, Nina, my guest for the evening, remarked that the academics’ costumes, all velvet with gold decorations seemed a bit out of place. Some of the jackets and painted smocks worn by the male actors were also a bit confusing. I found myself distracted by these costumes and was not sure if they were meant to be stylized tunics and a few times they threw me off in terms of trying to understand who the character was supposed to be.

A really strong technical element of the piece was the sound design by Daniel Bagg. It was really subtle and helped set the mood and (ever changing) location. For instance, you can actually hear waves crashing on a rocky beach as Sappho sits in despondent exile unmoved by the fresh air and blue skies.

The set, designed by Electa Porado, white fabric with some painted glitter, may seem a bit underwhelming at first, however, it works well with the the lighting designed by Logan Cracknell to transition the space from the airy whitewashed villa of Sappho to a shadowy dungeon.

The Tenth Muse is an enjoyable piece of indie theatre which I believe, with a bit of polishing, deserves a second life in the Toronto theatre scene.

Details

  • The Tenth Muse is playing until December 16, 2017 at Kensington Hall (56 Kensington Avenue).
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7.30pm
  • Tickets are $20 ($18 arts worker)
  • Tickets are available online.
  • The venue is very small so booking ahead is recommended.

Photo of Olivia Croft, Kelsey Dann, Jovan Kovic and Jack Comerford by Electa Porado