Review: Welcome to My Underworld (RARE Theatre Company/Soulpepper)

photo of Bilal Baig in Welcome to My UnderworldToronto’s Rare Theatre Company presents a collection of plays featuring marginalized voices

Welcome to My Underworld is like a theatrical collection of short stories. Playing at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto’s Distillery District, these nine poignant plays give voice to many untold experiences, under the direction of change-maker Judith Thompson.

The central element of the set is a large white tree painted on the back wall whose roots on the floor of the stage were equally as prominent. The wide, spreading out of branches and roots made me feel as if all the characters were looking for a sense of belonging and the right to take up space. I liked the simplicity of Brett Haynes’ set; we were able to stay focused on the storytellers rather than any superfluous props.

Holding the different short plays together is a multi-part play called Wake by Grace Thompson. Her main character is a 13-year-old girl Willow (played by Thompson herself) who doesn’t know how to interact with anyone except with her imaginary friend. Thompson’s awkward posture and tone of voice make her somber, but her eyes and her interesting questions make her curious and sharp.

Carolyn Hetherington in The Witch Came Out does an eye-opening job of evoking fear in a nursing home. Her character feels at risk, but is proud of being called a “fighter” when she questions the behaviour of a nurse. We’re brought back to the murders at Caressant Care, and reminded of how the surviving patients must have felt as they watched their companions die off prematurely, one by one.

Radha S. Menon also gives voice to an elderly person in the poetically written Chattel. She is en route to a retirement home after being “tossed around” between her children’s homes. Menon gives a touching performance as a senior who feels useless.

In Grandma Never Told Me There’ll Be Days Like This, Samson Brown offers us a glimpse of a transgender person not being able to use a public washroom — all day long — since neither the women’s room nor the men’s room are welcoming places. When Brown recounts the shame of urinating in a bush and imagining Grandma’s disappointment, it is a woeful reminder to myself why all-gender washrooms should exist.

In Kitne Laloo Yahan Pey Hain, Bilal Baig is outstanding. His character, brown-skinned and trans, talks of many challenges that include family disapproval. It is heartbreaking to watch the sheer panic of a cry that went something like: “Don’t tell my parents that I dress this way!” The talented Baig gives us shame and sadness during some parts, and sass and comedy in others.

We may not often think of the sexuality of people who use wheelchairs, but Nikoletta Erdelyi surfaces the sexuality of her character in an unrestrained, funny manner. Erdelyi is wildly expressive as she spins around in her wheelchair, hair flying, and with arms taking up tons of space. In Ghost Tales, she also reveals the persecution that her Roma family has faced. Not only is she the “sick one” but she comes from a family that is viewed as the “scum of the earth.”

Maddie Bautista, a Filipina born in Saudi Arabia, also has a compelling story to tell: her character has suffered sexual abuse from a family friend. Jeddahwi also gives us a humorous look at a Filipino school teacher who gives stern sex ed lessons. Bautista switches back and forth from the young girl and the teacher with no effort, changing her tone, accent and posture seamlessly and making us laugh too.

Sound designer Olivia Shortt plays the saxophone to create both music and sound effects. Her sound design also offers an eclectic mix of snippets of song at the beginning of the play. Dream a Little Dream of Me recurs throughout the performance, as part of Ellen Ringler’s Prism. Ringler’s character, a gritty and hardened adult who uses impolite language, flashes back to her 5-year-old self and gives us an innocent and beautiful rendition of Dream of Little Dream.

Even though the characters were all vulnerable to some degree, I felt a palpable sense of empowerment on stage, which was inspiring and made me feel hope for a society in which more marginalized voices are heard and embraced. There was a drive to stand up for oneself, despite being the “other” in mainstream society. Baig’s character mentions a friend who says “what makes you different makes you beautiful” and I think this line says a lot about this important work.

Details

  • Welcome to My Underworld is playing until May 25, 2019 at Soulpepper Theatre, inside Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
  • Shows run from Tuesday to Saturday at 8 PM, with an additional performance at 2 PM only on Wednesday and Saturday.
  • Ticket prices range from $25 to $40 and can be purchased online, or at the door.
  • Approximate running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
  • Live ASL interpretation on Saturday, May 25, 2019 at 8 PM
  • Mature language and content

Photo of Bilal Baig by Sophia Thompson-Campbell

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