“There once was a woman….”
Thursday night, I had the opportunity to attend Exciting Cause, written and produced by Laurie Fyffe, at Arts Court Theatre. This production, directed by Patrick Gauthier and presented by TACTICS Theatre Group, was a fantastic experience for me; my theatre-going experience tends to primarily consist of happy-go-lucky musical theatre, and this was a welcome change!
To start: for my theatre reviews, I like to focus on the event experience in its entirety as opposed to just the show. Arts Court is an incredible venue that I’ve only just started to explore. Within it are multiple smaller venues, including Arts Court Theatre, and Saw Gallery/Club Saw, both home to some incredible shows. Arts Court Theatre is on the third floor of the main building. Stepping off of the elevator, you are immediately greeted by friendly staff, ready to check you in for the show. The theatre itself is only steps away, with no concessions or amenities to distract you. With only about 140 seats, it’s a small, very intimate theatre which really draws the audience members into a show. The stage set-up, lighting and acoustics all appeared to be very high-quality, adding to the venue’s appeal.
Regular readers of my theatrical reviews have become accustomed to reading about large-scale, upbeat musicals; happy stories filled with tongue-in-cheek humour, dancing, singing, and laughter. This show was much different; I’ve started to spread my wings and expand my horizons within the Ottawa theatre scene!
Exciting Cause tells the story of a modern day ancestorial historian, Sarah (Michelle LeBlanc), who is trying to uncover her great-great-grandmother’s cause of death while committed at the Rockwood Insane asylum outside of Kingston Ontario, in 1901. After sneaking into the long-shuttered facility, she finds more than she expects. She is met by three haunting characters, all previous patients of the asylum, who describe the circumstances that led to them being committed to Rockwood. They tell their stories using a combination of poetic recollections, bizarre movements, and an intriguing, albeit unusual, form of dance (for lack of a better word – see below).
There are only four performers in Exciting Cause and all of them are fantastic; they collaborate exceptionally well, while each maintaining the importance of their character’s haunting, individual story. I am unsure if the ‘dance,’ described above should be categorized as such, as I am not a dancer; it was different from what one might typically consider to be dance. However, many scenes were made up of each character’s unique movements, and these were choreographed so brilliantly that they really made the show something special, offering audiences a truly unique, enjoyable experience. For example, the character of Hattie, portrayed by Chelsea Passmore, portrayed the experience of drowning by quietly, without emotion, muttering, “Help….help,” as she was being pulled away by unseen waves. This was something so original, that I have never seen or experienced before, so huge congratulations to Allison Burns for her exceptional choreography, which really brought the characters to life.
The show opens with Sarah (LeBlanc) sneaking into the asylum, and awakening inside to a nightmare. This opening scene, which introduced the three resident ‘ghosts,’ was truly magnificent. I immediately noticed the character of Emily, portrayed by Angelina Wehbe. As one of the previous patients, her on-stage movements, reminiscent of demonic possession, was awesome. Her body contortion reminded me of the girl from The Ring when she emerges from the TV. Wehbe, with exceptional stage presence, is outstanding throughout the show. Oddly enough, she was the only performer that wasn’t new to me: I saw her previously in Bear and Co’s Mixed Doubles, where she earned one of my ‘stand out performance’ accolades.
The sound and lights throughout the show were incredible. I found the combination to be both eerie and chilling, which instantly drew me in, wanting to see and hear more! Kudos to Nick Di Gaetano for great sound design, it was bang-on (quite literally, in one scene!) and really made this story feel authentic.
LeBlanc’s portrayal of Sarah was fantastic. LeBlanc is no stranger to the theatre scene in Ottawa. She has an impressive resume spanning a variety of theatre companies, however this was my first time seeing her in a show, and her experience and skill were palpable. She flawlessly managed the transition between two characters: modern day historian and 100-year-old ghost – whose dialects and mannerisms were noticeably different from one another. I really enjoyed seeing both characters develop as modern-day Sarah uncovered the terrifying reality of Rockwood Asylum.
One scene that really made an impact on me was the depiction of the tribulations that Hattie (Chelsea Passmore) faced as a young woman. The scene illustrates her descent into madness, fueled by a decade of abuse. Forced into marriage at 15 to a nymphomaniac, bearing ten children in a span of twelve years, all while enduring physical abuse, Hattie’s life was hell, and Passmore’s portrayal of Hattie’s declining mental health was exceptional and very powerful. The use of props in this scene was so original, with the children being represented by small wooden chairs. This was by far my favourite scene of the show.
Julie Le Gal was, in my view, the glue that held the story together, and was very convincing in her portrayal of a variety of characters. Her depiction of the character of Ellen, in particular, was very authentic! However, she truly became each character that she portrayed. She is a natural!
This show was smaller than most of the shows that I review, and it was a very nice change of pace! I loved that the small space allowed for the audience to be drawn into the darkness of the story, to feel the agony and suffering of each character as they poetically described the events that brought them to the asylum. The set was simply a black-walled, empty room, and the props consisted of various styles and colours of wooden chairs, as well as some hilarious hats. The simplicity of the set and props allowed the skills of the performers to take centre stage, as there were no distractions. It’s a different kind of theatre.
Overall, this show was way more exciting than I expected! Four very talented performers came together to bring this evocative, intriguing story to life. The sound and lights were spot-on; the costumes, designed by Hannah Ferguson, were also excellent. Overall, I really enjoyed the entire show! You should definitely go see this. Arts Court is located beside the Rideau Centre at 2 Daly Street. You can catch a performance almost daily until Friday May 5th at 8pm, with an additional matinee this Sunday at 4pm. You can buy your tickets on Eventbrite by clicking here! The runtime is one hour and fifteen minutes, with no intermission.