Stage Door Review
The Darkest Dark
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
by Jim Millan & Ian MacIntyre, directed by Jim Millan
Young People’s Theatre, Toronto
February 23-April 2, 2023
Chris: “Outside there’s darkness everywhere”
Young People’s Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of The Darkest Dark, a stage version by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre of the 2016 children’s book of the same name by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and writer Kate Fillion. The stage adaptation is immensely successful with fine acting from the entire cast. YPT gives the show a dazzling production featuring clever design, projections, puppets and magic to make this a wonderful show for the whole family.
The setting is a cottage on Stag Island in 1969 just a few days before the Apollo 11 moon landing. Inspired by Hadfield’s own childhood, it is the story of Chris, a nine-year-old boy who loves pretending to be a fearless astronaut flying through space killing menacing space aliens. Chris, however, has a secret. He is afraid of the dark. His wild imagination that allows him to play astronaut during the day, also fills the night with menacing space aliens. He needs either his mother or father to stay with him in his room until he falls asleep, or he has to sleep in his parents’ bed to feel safe. Both Chris and his parents know he should be over this fear by now, but nothing they try seems to help.
Chris’s sleeping problem he had almost solved in the city. But now at the cabin where he can hear the sounds of nature and where the dark is truly dark, he has become afraid again. Chris is especially afraid that his two best friends on the island, Herbie and Jane, will find out about his fear and make fun of him. As time goes on and they three children have canoeing lessons and plan to put on a play, Chris comes to see that both Herbie and Jane have their own fears. By the time of the moon landing on July 20, Chris has realized how absolutely dark space is and finally sees the contradiction in his loving space travel yet fearing darkness. By rethinking what darkness means, Chris is able to conquer his fear.
It is a simple enough story aimed as children aged 6-12, but fear of the dark is one of the most common phobias, and one that most people can understand. What makes this show special is the fantastic production it receives. Anna Treusch has created a clever set, one side of which shows the interior of Chris’s bedroom and when turned around shows the exterior of the Chris’s family’s cabin. The set can split in half and slide into the wings for outdoor locations.
The background for the cabin its composed of a central oval and various sinuous sections surrounding it. This background forms the screen for Daniele Guevara’s wide range of projections. Sometimes these portray a generic view of outer space with cartoonish monsters or spacecraft when representing Chris imagining himself a space hero. Other times they will represent photos like those from the Hubble Space Telescope with real images of space including space clouds and stars of varying colour and intensity. Guevara’s projections also show a children’s book-like illustration of nature when Chris and his friends play outside during the day. The projections show 1960s-style black-and-white backgrounds for newscasts, such as those covering the moon landing, plus actual footage of the moon landing itself.
Treusch has also created three types of costumes for the play. One set are the characters’ everyday clothes that accurately reflect the styles of the 1960s. A second group are the homemade costumes and props that Jane makes for the kids’ play. Treusch obviously has not forgotten how clever children can be in making things with found materials. The third group are the costumes Chris dreams up when he imagines astronauts and space villains. Again Treusch fully taps into the amusing 1960s B-movie look of the majority of sci-fi films before the advent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
As if this were not enough, director Jim Millan has had magician David Ben create three illusions for Chris and his friends to perform. There’s a disappearance and a transformation which is truly mind-boggling. But perhaps the most beautiful of Ben’s effects is when Chris in a dream lifts the glowing orb that lights his lamp and somehow plucks smaller orbs of light from it that he casts into the sky.
The cast is excellent across the board. Ziska Louis, a trans, non-binary actor, is an endearing Chris. They avoid any of the cutesy antics that adults often use when portraying children. Instead, Louis focusses on how real and how embarrassing Chris’s fear of the dark is. Louis is so sympathetic that we don’t want to laugh at the agony Chris goes through when his night terrors comes and how he struggles to put them out of his mind until they become too much. Louis also shows how Chris really does appreciate the comfort that his parents provide even though he also knows that depending on them in this way makes him look like a “baby”. Millan and MacIntyre could make the steps of Chris’s overcoming his fear clearer, but Louis’s is a fine performance that demonstrates that children have more complex mental lives than adults give them credit for.
As Chris’s parents Aurora Browne and Craig Lauzon play the kind of caring, understanding parents kids would be lucky to have. Browne and Lauzon show that the parents know Chris feels humiliated enough by his problem without their making it worse.
Lauzon also plays a CBC new anchor of the time reporting on the moon landing. Lauzon hilariously has the affected high seriousness of the CBC style down perfectly.
Chris’s friends Herbie and Jane are played with infectious enthusiasm by Xavier Lopez and Hannah Forest Briand. Lopez makes Herbie the goofiest one of the three and Brian makes Jane the most sensible. But when Herbie realizes he can’t hide his secret fear anymore, Lopez shows us a different vulnerable side to his character. Similarly, Briand shows us a nervousness that overtakes Jane when she perceives her fear, an aspect to her character we had not seen before. Frequent Toronto theatre-goers may be surprised to realize that Briand acted the part of a much more mysterious young girl in French in Marie-Claire Marcotte’s Flush at Théâtre français de Toronto just earlier this year.
As Cindy, Evelyn Wiebe humorously captures the feeling of infinite superiority all big sisters have towards younger brothers, and hates to have Chris notice that she has a crush on the new canoeing instructor. Meanwhile, Shaquille Pottinger exudes cool as that instructor and speaks 1960s slang as naturally as if he somehow actually been alive during that period.
Director Jim Millan knows his audience and knows one of the main goals of YPT. When he has Chris, Herbie and Jane run down the aisles in the outer space costumes of Chris’s imagination, the crowd shrieks with delight. To have the actors physically come among the audience is something that only live theatre can do.
The combination of the cast’s excellence, Millan’s experienced direction, Treusch’s imaginative design and Guevara’s fantastic projections make this an ideal show for families. Not only will children learn about important events of history and science, but they will learn that fears can be overcome. Grandparents will enjoy the show’s accurate recreation of the ‘60s and of the excitement that led everyone with a TV set to watch the moon landing live. This is a show one hopes will travel across Canada and beyond.
Photos: Hannah Forest Brian as Jane, Xavier Lopez as Herbie and Ziska Louis as Chris; Eleyn Wiebe as Cindy, Shaquille Pottinger as Keith, Hannah Forest Brian as Jane, Xavier Lopez as Herbie and Ziska Louis as Chris. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.org.