This site-specific one-hander, on stage in Toronto, is smart and funny but didn’t all add up
Katherine is Not a Communist is a new play written by Katherine Doering and Curtis te Brinke and produced by Epigraph Theatre. The one-woman show, featuring Doering as the title character, packs a lot into 90 minutes. There’s American history, classic Hollywood movies, and witchcraft. It’s a wild ride, but for me, the show didn’t hang together. I thought the different bits were interesting, but as a whole, the show left me confused.
The play is set during a hearing of House Un-American Activities Committee in the US in 1947. Katherine is a mid-level secretary at MGM Studios who has been brought before the committee to testify on potential communist sympathies at the studios. To complicate matters, satanic objects have been found in her desk, and she admits to being a witch. Katherine sits behind a desk as an off-stage (recorded) voice questions her.
What follows is a collection of vignettes where Katherine alternately expounds on the history of Hollywood, channels various witches and “witchy” women of the past (including Joan of Arc and Judy Garland) and breaks into song and dance. She highlights the hidden power dynamics and misogyny behind the Hollywood glamour of the 30’s and 40’s. She tells stories of exploitation and even abuse during the making of classic films like The Wizard of Oz. There are some powerful parallels with the #MeToo stories of the contemporary entertainment industry.
Doering is a talented and versatile performer. She switches seamlessly from flirty, breathy secretary to angry and seething succubus. Everything is delivered with a wink and side of snark. She also can really sing. Her closing song and dance number would bring down a much larger house.
Still, for me, Katherine is Not a Communist didn’t work as a unified piece of theatre. There was no real narrative arc. I enjoyed Doering’s performance, but I didn’t think the play built towards a climax. Also, while the witch hunt of the McCarthy hearings lends itself to the witchcraft theme, I found the conceit was a little clunky. The off-stage voice of the interrogator didn’t add anything or help move the play along.
The play is performed in the bell tower at the Church of the Messiah. The small irregularly shaped room makes for an intimate and up-close experience. And the crucifix and bible verses on the walls provide an ironic counterpoint to the satanic subject matter. But, honestly, the space seemed a bit of a mess to me. There were extra stacked chairs clearly visible at the side of the stage and unused cushions thrown in the corner. I found it distracting. It may be a petty comment, but it wouldn’t have taken much to hide the extra stuff at the back rather than the front of the room.
All in all, I left Katherine is Not a Communist unsatisfied. It had an interesting premise and a strong performance, but lost its way in the execution.
- Katherine is Not a Communist is playing until November 24, 2018 at the Church of the Messiah (240 Avenue Road).
- Shows run nightly at 10:00 pm.
- Tickets are $15 and can be ordered online.
Photo of Katherine Doering by Steph Raposo