Stage Door Review
Saturday, October 26, 2019
by Claudia Dey, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Factory Theatre, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto
October 24-November 10, 2019
Sugar: ”We’re lone trees waiting to be struck by lightning”
Factory Theatre is giving Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley its first professional revival in Toronto since its premiere in 2005. The comedy, often labelled “Canadian Gothic”, was a major success from the beginning and has played all over Canada and internationally. Its success lies in Dey’s ability to lend the words and actions an unexpectedness that never seem to flag and carries on right until the play’s last moments. This results in an exhilarating evening but one that is more in keeping with farce where we don’t look for any profundity rather than the best comedy which can be just as profound as tragedy.
The play concerns the two Ducharme sisters, Grace (Natasha Mumba) and Sugar (Shakura Dickson), who are twins living in northern BC next to a dump on the outskirts of a mining town between Misery Junction and Grizzly Alley. Before birth they had been part of a set of triplets, but their sister whom they call Duckling, died in the birth canal. The sisters are about to celebrate a double anniversary. It is going to be their 30th birthday and it will be ten years since the tragic death of both their parents whom they call the Holy Father and Mother.
Though twins, the two women are complete opposites. Sugar has worn her mother’s tracksuit every day for the past ten years and has never left the house in all that time. Grace is almost always out and has got jobs modelling. Her latest triumph is becoming the billboard girl for a local sports supply store.
Yet, anticipation of their 30th birthday also brings anxiety, especially for Sugar because of what she calls the “birthday curse”. Every year for the past ten years a woman of the same age as the twins has died on the day of their birthday. This happens again with the death of a well-known female stripper-cum-Scrabble champion. To make things worse a strange, young, ragged drifter named Trout Stanley (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) gains access to the Ducharme’s house when Grace is away. Sugar is just about to hang herself to end the “birthday curse” when Trout appears and talks her out of it. After assuring herself that Trout did not kill the stripper, Sugar and Trout, following Dey’s law of unexpectedness, fall instantly in love. The question is how Grace will react.
Dey’s play is constructed by creating patterns of oppositions and parallels more than it is by logic or subtle character development. The fact that Trout is also a twin and that his parents also died suddenly and simultaneously is just accepted as part of the world of multiple coincidences that Dey has built. This world of multiple coincidences suggests that some kind of fate is at work in the lives of these otherwise ordinary people, but whether that is actually true cannot be rationally examined.
What makes Trout Stanley work so well on stage is that it is highly theatrical. Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu seems to be fully aware of this and her production is faster moving and more physical than was the original. The actors speak at a rapid, almost too rapid, pace as if to prevent reflection on whether the action does or does not make sense. Otu has the actors perform with their whole bodies. She has wonderfully choreographed Trout successfully escaping from Grace’s detection although they are in the same room with hilariously precise dexterity. In the original production the entire cast was White. In this it is Black, but Dey’s language is so nonspecific and her story so fantastical the actors’ colour makes no difference.
The actors play their roles with such complete dedication that we don’t pause to notice that only one of the three is three-dimensional. That one is Sugar Ducharme played with a delightful sense of innocence by Shakura Dickson. Dickson makes Sugar, a 30-year-old who has never left the house for ten years, a fully believable character. Dickson lends Sugar a charming naïveté and meekness but also brings out the layer of deep depression that we feel must also be present.
Dickson makes us see how Sugar could invent a doom-laden mythology, enabled by Grace, about their parents’ deaths and the resultant curse on their lives. Yet, Dickson also reveals that Sugar is self-aware and knows that love is what can cure her. Whether that love should be with the first man she meets in ten years is part of the artifice of Dey’s play, yet again Dickson makes us believe not only that Sugar can instantly fall in love but radically change because of that love.
In comparison with Sugar, Grace and Trout are hardly well-rounded characters. Natasha Mumba is so preoccupied with making Grace appear tough and brash she almost forgets that there has to be a tenderness in Grace to protect Sugar for so many years. Mumba does let this other side of Grace peek through near the end but it would have helped us regard her as more than a wannabe blaxploitation film heroine had it surfaced earlier.
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s Trout Stanley does at first appear to be a fairly scary homeless man, but once he speaks he brings out all the quirkiness of his character that chimes so well with Sugar’s own quirkiness. Dey’s play would be much more interesting if she allowed us to remain in doubt about the truth of Trout’s barely credible life story and the genuineness of his feelings toward Sugar, but in the off-kilter world world Dey has constructed, we are meant to believe in Trout just as Sugar does and view Grace’s distrust as unjustified. For his part Jackman-Torkoff gives Trout the most physical acting style of the three. Trout’s smooching with Sugar involves all sorts of hilarious bodily contortions and leg and arm extensions to show us how overwhelming the experience of love is for Trout. Jackman-Torkoff has Trout speak with the fervour of a street preacher that Jackman-Torkoff controls in such a way that we support rather than doubt what he says.
Designer Shannon Lea Doyle has created one of the most attractive sets ever to grace the Factory Theatre Mainstage. We learn that Sugar briefly tried to earn money by selling figurines and the walls are decorated four shelves high with what we assume are all the unsold figurines that Sugar has made – a testament both to her failure and her creativity.
Trout Stanley is hardly a feminist play. The action, after all, depends on a man whose love rescues a woman from a life of stagnation. The play has also been criticized as an exercise in kookiness for kookiness’s sake. While there is truth to to this criticism, it is possible to enjoy Trout Stanley as a highly entertaining modern Canadian fairy tale. With this revival with Otu’s swift, punchy direction and the vivid performances of the cast, it’s time to turn off the search for deeper meaning and simply enjoy Dey’s vigorously fanciful tale unfold.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Trout, Natasha Mumba as Grace and Shakura Dickson as Sugar; Natasha Mumba as Grace, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Trout andShakura Dickson as Sugar; Natasha Mumba as Grace, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Trout. © 2019 Joseph Michael Photography.
For tickets, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.