CARMILLA (Pointed Cap Playhouse) 2018 Toronto Fringe Review

Photo of Heath V. Salazar and Stella Kulagowski by Sly FeiticeiraPointed Cap Playhouse‘s CARMILLA tells the story of Laura (Stella Kulagowski), a friendship-starved young woman, and the intensely erotic relationship she builds with an alluring, fang-toothed stranger (the titular Carmilla, played by Heath V. Salazar) whose carriage overturns in front of her house one day. In other words, the show is a queer vampire burlesque show staged in a Victorian-themed Toronto bar, making it, in my opinion, one of the most memorable elevator pitches you’re likely to hear this year at the Toronto Fringe Festival

Based on the Victorian novella of the same name by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (which not only predates Dracula, but purportedly inspired it, at least to some degree), CARMILLA is less a straightforward adaptation and more a reclaiming. Instead of depicting the vampire Carmilla as an ambiguous threat to the normative mores of the Victorian era, a mysterious figure who both attracts and repulses Laura in equal measure, this show imagines the relationship between Laura and Carmilla as a more familiar contemporary queer narrative: Carmilla and Laura are unashamedly in love, and must fight to overcome the prejudices of a patriarchal, heteronormative society.

This site-specific show plays nightly at The Painted Lady, a bar down on Ossington that has a distinct Victorian feel. This venue is definitely dripping with vampiric vibes, with walls cluttered with portraits and mirrors, with all of it drenched in a red haze of light. It’s smoky, silky, and intimate. It’s also thin as a coffin, appropriately enough, and sightlines are a little tricky as a result. In my opinion, the best seats are near the middle of the room! 

That being said, there are two main elements to this show that might appeal to you: the Victorian narrative, and the queer-themed burlesque elements that pepper the show throughout, performed by the full cast at different intervals on top of bars and down the central aisles of the space.

In terms of the first, I found the show a little shaky. The cast is broadly charismatic, but there seems to be some discomfort with the Victorian style of speaking. It never quite settles into a fully natural-sounding rhythm, as dialogue lifted direct from the book comes across as a little more rehearsed or stilted. 

It also tends to favour wry winks and sultry humour over gothic horror; moments that might be eerie or horrifying are quickly undermined by camp. This means that the story never feels like it’s taking itself one hundred percent seriously, and the characters tend to feel broad as a result. It feels like the show is desperate to rip off the bustle throughout, as though the story is a mere framing to set up the dynamics of the burlesque.

Because where the show feels most fluidly and dynamically comfortable are in the burlesque performances, especially when paired with the more cinematic moments of pure camp. Basically, think Jane Eyre meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In particular, scenes where Salazar and Kulagowski are moving in unison to illustrate Carmilla’s influence over Laura, or slowly dressing each other with loving attention, are beautiful, sensual, and enthralling.

Another scene featuring Shawn Lall and Sebastian Marziali, which I won’t spoil but will say involved an angry mob, had me doubled over laughing until my stomach hurt due to their utter relish for the task at hand. Similarly, any scene where the vampires skulk up and down the aisles is wonderfully exciting, because chances are you’re literally close enough to touch (though please don’t!). 

So here’s what CARMILLA isn’t: a fully realized, dramatically satisfying adaptation of a Victorian novel.

But here, as a trade-off I can absolutely live with, is what CARMILLA is INSTEAD: a hyper fun, super sexy, intriguingly staged queer romp that had me laughing hard and whooping up a storm at the quality dancing, burlesque, and physical theatre constantly whirling all around me.

It’s hard to describe the sense of celebration and joy contained within this thin venue as bodies whirl on bar-tops, as you lift your wine to avoid swirling actors, as the whole bar is shuffling and laughing and shrieking from the sheer good time on offer. But trust me, the vibe is wall-to-wall fun, and you won’t regret seeing this one.

Details

  • CARMILLA plays at The Painted Lady. (218 Ossington Ave.)
  • Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
  • Content Warnings: Unsuitable for minors; Sexual content; Realistic violence or gore; Fog or haze effects; Strobe lights; Nudity; Unconventional venue.
  • The Fringe Festival considers this venue to be wheelchair-accessible.
  • Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.

Performances

  • Wednesday July 4th, 7:00 pm
  • Thursday July 5th, 7:00 pm
  • Saturday July 7th, 1:00 pm
  • Sunday July 8th, 1:00 pm
  • Monday July 9th, 7:00 pm
  • Tuesday July 10th, 7:00 pm
  • Wednesday July 11th, 7:00 pm
  • Thursday July 12th, 7:00 pm
  • Saturday July 14th, 1:00 pm
  • Sunday July 15th, 1:00 pm

Photo of Heath V. Salazar and Stella Kulagowski by Sly Feiticeira.