Dark Heart is a “brave new world of a show” playing on the Toronto stage
Dark Heart, a Thought For Food production now playing at the Assembly Theatre, is a prequel to an earlier work by playwright Genevieve Adam, Deceitful Above All Things, which is set in the same world of colonial New France. I haven’t seen it, but now I’m more than intrigued — this nuanced, captivating show inhabits a world worth visiting and revisiting.
New France in 1661 is a place that has only begun to tame the wilderness, which continually encroaches on its veneer of civility. Superstitions abound, particularly that of the loup-garou, shapeshifter, or werewolf. The worst beasts, though, might be easier to spot: new-money noble Louis de Lamothe (Paul Rivers) projects his insecurities onto his disappointingly headstrong young wife Madeleine (Audrey Clairman), who misses France terribly. Instead of being tamed by cruel punishment, Madeleine simply disappears one night. Did she run to the arms of her Native lover, or is something more supernatural at play?
Everyone is either looking for Madeleine or involved in her disappearance: there’s Amable Bilodeau (Michael Iliadis), the young new soldier fleeing poverty in France, and Eleonore Ramzay (Adam), the “bonesetter,” the first white woman born in the new colony. At the hospital, Dr. Sarrazin (John Fitzgerald Jay), the careworn medic who knows religious custom inside and out but finds his own beliefs to be less orthodox, bonds and clashes with Sister Marie (Brianne Tucker), a feisty nun with a mysterious past. Orbiting on the fringes is Toussaint Langlois (Garret C. Smith), expert Métis trapper and tracker with a colony-wide reputation for being equally charming and dangerous.
A few aspects of the show really set it apart. First, there’s Adam’s script, which is at turns witty and profound; though it deals with heavy subjects and potential tragedy, it’s always fast-paced, sparkling, and fun. It’s a period piece that, save a few self-conscious turns of phrase, seems authentic without period heaviness or awkwardness.
Suffused with themes of disguise and deceit, shifting identity in a new world, and wearing another’s skin (underscored by such character traits as Sarrazin’s eerie obsession with dissections), it ably succeeds in promoting the idea of the power of storytelling, from religion to personal mythology.
The actors, too, elevate the experience: everyone has excellent chemistry with each other in a way that’s actually surprisingly rare, particularly Adam, Smith, and Iliadis. Because of this, without being explicit, the show feels very sexy and alive.
The actors are aided by the fully fleshed-out nature of the characters, who are refreshingly non-stereotypical. This is particularly true when it comes to the voices of the often-overlooked women and Métis characters (who are played by Métis and Blackfoot actors). There are no damsels in distress or “noble savages” here.
The plot is well-constructed and suspenseful (its only flaw is a slightly rushed and perfunctory climax). It features some actual jump-scares, mostly courtesy of Alex Eddington’s effective sound design (hampered only slightly, or perhaps aided, by the incredibly loud banging of the overhead pipes) and creepily atmospheric projections on a mock animal hide, stretched for tanning.
The relatively simple set design is earthy and spare (a dirt-strewn floor, birch trees), but all scenes have a very specific and purposeful sense of space. The clarity and pacing of Tyler Seguin’s direction make it easy to visualize multiple locations and times. As well, my costume designer guest was genuinely impressed by the verisimilitude of almost all of the period costumes (save Madeleine’s fancy frock, which she proclaimed a hundred years off), particularly for a show in such a small space with a relatively large cast.
Depending on where you live in the city, Queen and Lansdowne may feel like the ends of the earth. It’s worth the trip, though, to catch this brave new world of a show. It’s a diamond in the rough, or, if you prefer, a werewolf in the white woods.
- Dark Heart plays at the Assembly Theatre (1479 Queen St. West) until February 11th, 2018
- Shows run Tuesday-Sunday at 8pm
- Tickets are $25 plus service fee and can be purchased online
Photo of Genevieve Adam and Michael Iliadis by John Gundy