Review: 1991 (RISER Project/Guilty By Association)

The RISER Project presents Cole Lewis’ unconventionally-staged coming-of-age play in Toronto

1991 is an inventive, intimate performance. Show creator Cole Lewis tells us a tragically all-too-common story about girlhood while eschewing traditions in theatrical performance and use of technology onstage.

We follow the account of 12-year-old Nicole, whom we soon realize is a younger, memory-distorted version of the playwright and creator. She spends a summer with her ill-tempered father in Delaware, ostensibly to protect her from the murders plaguing Southern Ontario. Although not stated explicitly, the lingering threat of a killer does seem to allude to notorious Canadian criminals Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, as well as one of their many victims Leslie Mahaffy. While Nicole survives her journey, we feel every bump and bruise she endures along the way.

Instead of a typical dramatic play, the “staging” and characters are seen through a series of photographic projections, designed by Patrick Blenkarn and ‘animated’ by projectionist-performers Mina James and Montserrat Videla. Characters move around the frames accompanied by live voiceover from Lewis, as herself, and co-performer Jessica Carmichael, who voices the eleven other characters that Nicole encounters. Using a myriad of vocal shifts, and live sound mixing through the onstage microphones, Carmichael baffles as she transforms from Nicole’s father, to his drunken friends, and more. The distorted voices and shadowy figures construct the show’s uneasy emotional core and they’re also the most effective way to convey some of the more gruesome subject matter. Overall, the effect brings to mind childhood nostalgia and TV crime documentaries.

The simple story means the show’s design can be more ambitious; the team on stage makes the coordination and flow of the projected images look effortless. We speed down winding dirt roads, see a late-night screening in a small-town cinema, and climb trees along suburban walking paths. With a bold and wholly unique artistic thesis, the low-fidelity, abstracted visuals engage our senses and make Lewis’ story all the more personal.

Although, given the show’s themes of the exploitation and violence haunting young women and girls, it became too personal for me as a woman recovering from personal traumas, and supporting other women through theirs.

The conclusion of Nicole’s ordeal unsettles, or depending on the audience member, re-traumatizes. Although we need theatre that shocks and provokes questions, the show ends not long after things get darkest. We return to reality only to realize we never left it, and we’re left alone with our thoughts. It lacks the catharsis of theatre because it’s a real-life story, and real life doesn’t always have such closure. But sharing a deeply visceral experience with an inconclusive conclusion isn’t likely to remind victims of assault of anything they haven’t already learned the hard way.

I think about my growing stack of unanswered e-mails, texts, and private messages on social media from friends who need support and want to tell their story. And often, I help out of love and friendship, but sometimes the price is less time, strength and energy to tend to my own wounds. I came out of this show with the same feeling of exhaustion.

As an artistic and personal statement, Nicole’s story is bold and unflinchingly truthful and will inspire many viewers to greater empathy and understanding of the women in their life. That said, as a barometer of artist and audience mental health, it feels like a plane crashing but you’re not allowed to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Audiences do have the chance to write down their thoughts and participate in post-show talk-backs, but it’s not a cure-all, especially for those who face difficulty expressing themselves.

To call 1991 relevant and necessary is truth, but an understatement. I encourage audiences to witness this play, but steel yourself.

Details:

  • 1991 is playing until June 1, 2019 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
  • See show page for performance times and details on audience discussion sessions
  • Tickets are $12-$60 as part of RISER Project’s pay-what-you-can model
  • Tickets can be purchased online, in-person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988
  • Ages 13 and up are advised due to strong language, use of alcohol, violence, and instances of sexual assault

Photo of ensemble by Dahlia Katz