Stage Door Review 2023

You and I

Friday, March 17, 2023


by Maja Ardal, directed by Allen MacInnis

Young People’s Theatre, Studio Theatre,Toronto

March 11-26, 2023

Elo: “I’m thinking with my head”

In 2016 Maja Ardal, Audrey Dwyer, Mary Francis Moore and Julia Tribe created one of the most unusual plays ever seen in Toronto. It was One Thing Leads to Another, a play for children from three to twelve months old. Amazingly the team had discovered a theatrical entertainment that captured and riveted the attention of this age group for 25 minutes after which time they were allowed to rush the stage and play with the props.

In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Ardal created a follow-up to One Thing called You and I, a play for children aged 18 months to 3 years. I was unable to see it then, but I have seen the revival this month and it is a total delight.

As with One Thing, the seating for the children and their adults consists of pillows and blankets strewn over a rubber-matted floor. There is a row of chairs at the back of YPT’s small Studio Theatre for adults who don’t wish to sit on the floor. Unlike One Thing, You and I has a set. Lokki Ma has created three wooden boxes – one the size of a trunk, one higher than the first and one as tall and wide as a closet. Against this background the actors perform the play.

The word “play” in the context of You and I is really not so much “play” as in a verbal drama with a plot but rather “play” as in the interactive activities engaged in by the two actors. These are activities that any of the audience might perform themselves but Ardal has carefully arranged them so that the action of the show progresses from small to large and simple to more complex.

The show starts with the two actors clad in soft dungarees introducing themselves. One is Kih Becke, who plays Dee, and the other is Amy Lee (best known as Jasp of the clown duo Morro and Jasp), who plays Elo. Already this is a significant change from One Thing where that actors had no character names. It signals from the start that words and names will be important, where One Thing was geared to pre-verbal children.

After the introduction Dee and Elo perform what look like various sorts of stretching exercises while making sounds that comically reflect the type of stretch, a scene linking sound with action. This progresses when the two accidentally discover clapping. First, they share their joy at this discovery by having all of us clap. Then in “Simon says” manner, though omitting those words, they ask us to clap various parts of our bodies along with them. The last place they ask us to clap is our eyes.

Once Dee has her hands over her eyes, this position leads to another discovery. “I’m hiding”, she says. Elo now cannot see Dee (although she is in plain sight with her hands over her eyes) and asks the audience where Dee is. Elo looks all about the stage, and cannot “find” Dee until Dee uncovers her eyes. This game is repeated back and forth between Dee and Elo and really is the most fun and instructive part of the whole show.

One of the most essential things it demonstrates is the link between child’s play and theatre. In 1817 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” as the factor which allows us to enjoy fiction. What happens in child’s play and theatre is much simpler. One could call it “willing belief”. If a child, as my nephew did at age two, says that the ordinary AA battery he is holding and moving about the air is a space rocket, it is a space rocket. If he shoots me with his index finger with the other three fingers curled in, he is holding a gun. Thus as Dee or Elo hides her face with her hands and says she is hiding, we assent and cannot see her. On the stage any object can be whatever the speaker says it is, just as it is for children.

In You and I this section leads to the panto-like situation that empowers children by proving they are consistently more perceptive than adults. There is a wonderful mix of hilarity and joy when one of the two “hides” and the children point and call out where the hidden one is all to no effect as Elo or Dee wander about looking for the other under blankets or anywhere except right in front of their face.

A second phase begins when a bell rings and a recorded male voice tells Elo and Dee to “Look up!” At that point a blue bucket descends from the ceiling on a rope. After Elo amusingly tries to figure out how to use a bucket – put in on your foot, wear it on your head – the bell and voice return with another “Look up!” This time a green ball falls from the sky. Dee readily sees a person can bounce a ball and both see that the ball fits exactly inside the bucket.

Soon Elo and Dee develop a game where they take turns holding the bucket while the other throws the ball. Dee always gets the ball in the bucket. Elo never does. Interestingly, the mood among the audience is not that Elo's failure is funny. I have a feeling that little kids have often not succeeded in doing something they wanted to do. Finally, when Elo does throw the ball into the bucket, everyone applauds.

This section is a wonderful depiction of children’s experience of new things and how they can or can’t be used effectively. The tossing game is an example of inventing a way to add new things into play. Elo’s failure shows both how important empathy is and how important it is not to give up trying.

From a philosophical point of view the most complex episode is when Elo and Dee want to comfort each other by letting the other have the ball, saying, “You have the ball”, “No, you have the ball”, etc. This leads to the question of the paradoxical use of the pronouns “you” and “I”. Elo says, “I am sad”, to which Dee says, “I am sad”, meaning she is sad because Elo is sad. Elo misunderstands and says, “No, I am sad”. This proceeds for a few comic exchanges, rather like Samuel Beckett for children, until the two hit on the pronoun “we” to link their common experience.

This verbal exchange crystallizes the physical actions that have happened throughout the show where the two characters act as if they were separate but come to see they are connected. Our empathy with Elo shows that we the audience are connected to the actions on stage through our emotions as, indeed, in theatre for adults.

At one point the ball ends up on top of the wardrobe-like box, too high for either performer to reach. The question becomes how to reach it. Again, as in a panto, the children shout out the obvious solution while Elo fumbles about trying without success to climb the middle box. One youngster even went up on stage to show Elo that she should climb on the small box first and then climb onto the middle box.

After Elo retrieves the ball, the bell and the voice sound saying “Look!” and Joshua Hind’s lighting causes all sorts of flashing patterns to play across the wardrobe-sized box. With much trepidation, the performers open the door and out tumbles a set of giant soft building blocks including cubes of different sizes, arches and odd-shaped pieces. The youngsters of the audience need no prompting. They all immediately rush the stage and when Dee tells them to enter under the wooden archway (which had been the middle box), they do and build and knock things down with pleasure.

The show has thus progressed from inarticulate stretching sounds to words to a debate about words that identify oneself and others. The action has progressed from Elo and Dee moving separately to discovering how to play with each other to inviting the entire audience of children to play with them. The movement from isolation to inclusion is the general course of comedy, so, one could say, that You and I makes children experience comedy in its most elemental form.

You could hardly imagine more sympathetic performers than Kih Becke and Amy Lee as Dee and Elo. They exude childlike innocence and wonder without ever recurring to the types of exaggeration that adult actors too frequently use when playing children. The two give their characters different personalities with Becke making Dee seem the sensible one and Lee making Elo seem the less sensible one, but one point of the show is that the two get along precisely because of their differences.

Becke and Lee also know how to deal with situations that most performancers might dread. Becke frequently had to escort an enthusiastic young child off the set and back to his caregiver, yet she did this in the gentlest possible manner so that it never disrupted the show.

As with One Thing Leads to Another, it is amazing how many fundamental ideas underlie the simplest actions in You and I and how both plays explore what are the very basics of theatre by showing how closely childhood play is related to theatre.

If you have children of the right age and missed You and I in 2020, you really must take them to this show. The children are absolutely mesmerized as soon as the action begins. This is due to the wise way in which Ardal has constructed the show, the insightful way in which Allen MacInnis has directed it and the charmingly engaging way that Becke and Lee act it out. The children are entranced but so are the adults, beyond delighted to see the miracle of their children or grandchildren becoming so caught up in what is likely their very first play.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Kih Becke as Dee with children; Kih Becke as Dee and Amy Lee as Elo with an audience member; Kih Becke as Dee and Amy Lee as Elo with children. © 2023 Young People’s Theatre.

For tickets visit