Outside Ethel: Inside is a show created by Dora-nominated Christine Moynihan for NACS Productions, playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival. It focuses on a lonely elderly woman who needs a lot of courage to leave her home together with her friends, three stuffed toys.
I grew up in Romania thinking that clowns are some of the most generous people in the world: they agree to appear stupid, to be slapped and punched, they fall and cry, only to make us laugh. My idea came first from the circuses of my childhood and then from the fascinating movies La strada (1954) and The Clowns (1970) of Italian director Federico Fellini.
I was very excited to see Outside Ethel: Inside, which is described on the Fringe website as a “clown dramedy.” During the first half of the show, my heart was melting watching Moynihan’s character going about her business on stage, during the second half I couldn’t wait for it to end.
She is charming at the beginning with her pink nightgown and slippers, her hair in curlers, and three goofy stuffed toys as her only companions. Her huge efforts to do the simplest things, like pinning a butterfly brooch onto her housecoat and opening a peanut butter jar, drew well-deserved tender laughter from the audience.
But then a terrible thing happens. A mouse falls into a bowl out of a box of cereal, as she is making breakfast for her toy friends and herself. Ethel takes the mouse from the bowl, pets it with a lot of affection, only to suddenly and endlessly hit it with the peanut butter jar.
As she tries to get rid of it, we find out that she has a collection of containers of dead mice under her bed. I could only imagine that she killed them in the same sadistic way. After that, I was unable to feel any trace of sympathy or empathy for Ethel.
I wasn’t the only one who felt appalled. The friend who kindly joined me for the 10:15 pm show told me at the end that she wanted to leave after the mouse’s death. She didn’t, just because she knew that I had volunteered to review it.
The handsome and talented ballet dancer (Jake Poloz) who appears in her dream provided a lighter intermezzo, beautifully choreographed by Roberto Campanella. Given my frustration with the main character, the dance scene only remined me of a sad joke about old people’s fantasies. (Sorry, I can’t share it here.)
The fact that at the very end we find out that her son hasn’t called her in months didn’t change my feelings toward Ethel. I was left with the harrowing question “Who is this woman?” The script itself doesn’t tell us much more about her because there are no recognizable words – except the ones coming from the cell phone.
Moynihan mumbles in an invented language, which was charming until it became dramaturgically unjustified. She checks her messages on her cell phone and the answering machine’s recording, “You have no new messages,” is in English. Why not speak in English throughout the entire play?
And why the red clown nose? I noticed very few additional clown elements in the entire show. I also kept thinking that without it, Ethel could’ve been a more realistic old lady and a more complex character.
Moynihan is a charming and gifted performer. An actual play would be very interesting if it would help us understand Ethel, animal cruelty included. If that is ever written and produced, I’ll make sure to see it!
- Outside Ethel: Inside plays at the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio. (345 Carlaw 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 (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warning: not recommended for children.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Friday July 5th, 6:00 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 10:15 pm
- Monday July 8th, 7:30 pm
- Wednesday July 10th, 4:00 pm
- Friday July 12th, 2:30 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 10:15 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 7:45 pm
Photo of Christine Moynihan by Maylynn Quan