Review: "Who Killed Snow White?" at the 4th Line Theatre

 (Photo: Heather Doughty / kawarthaNOW.com)

(Photo: Heather Doughty / kawarthaNOW.com)

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Theatre Critic

I’ve read several recent online articles about the value of the spontaneous standing ovation, and if it is now somewhat expected at the end of each play rather than earned by hard working actors. Has the standing ‘O’ lost its’ impact because audience members simply jump to their feet since they either are friends of the cast or director and do not want to disappoint or offend anyone? I’ve noticed recently in some of the larger professional/semi/non-professional Toronto/GTA houses that, while I may have enjoyed a performance but felt it did not merit me standing, I’ve had to do it begrudgingly, so I can watch the actors take their earned bows.

I did not know a single member of the outstanding cast in the world premiere of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Who Killed Snow White, and I’m almost positive I was the first one on my feet in acknowledgement and appreciation. I haven’t had quite a visceral response to a live production in such a long time. Playwright Judith Thompson was in the audience and I went to introduce myself and tell her how moved I was, and I felt the tears well up. Her compassionate warmth and smile in her thank you to me was enough.

Who Killed Snow White is the gut-wrenching story of shy sixteen-year-old Serena (beautifully and bravely portrayed by Grace Thompson) who is targeted by her classmates. Serena’s mother, Ramona (an outstanding Cynthia Ashperger), narrates this story at times calmly and other times matter of fact. Yet Ms. Ashperger’s lovely speaking voice still contained that tinge of heartbreak as she takes us on her journey to discover how, when, and why did all this bullying start? In her Playwright’s Notes, Judith Thompson asks how a world was created in which young women are humiliated and shamed to the point where they feel there is no other recourse but to take their own lives. Who is to blame for this tragedy? Hyper-sexualized young men? The upbringing of young people? The advent of the Internet and, sometimes, horrific things that can be found on it? What was so powerful about the opening night production for me, particularly at the end, was the tremendous hope the playwright has established amidst these grave societal concerns.

The outdoor setting of the production at Millbrook’s Winslow Farm worked tremendously well for me. There is a multi-level set of five sturdy looking pillars and one pillar which is split in two. What appears to be tattered burlap is draped over the pillars. There is a bench and table.  To the right of the stage, in the farm field, there is an arch with the same tattered looking burlap draped across. Many of the entrances and exits take place to and from the field as well.

Justin Hiscox’s original music composition underscores poignantly while heightening dramatic intensity, especially in its’ combination with Monica Dottor’s impressively stylized and unified choreographed movement of a multi age range of ‘up-and-coming’ youthful choral performers.

Director Kim Blackwell has carefully woven an affecting. emotional tapestry of a committed twenty-seven-member cast who deliver truly sensitive, sincere and genuine performances all round. Lack of space does not allow me to mention each of them individually and I wish I could.

As Serena, Grace Thompson captures realistically and believably the persona of the troubled teen with a concentrated and quiet intensity. Although I’m not a parent, my heart broke many times for Serena’s parents played by Cynthia Ashperger and Mark Hiscox as they helplessly watch what happens to their daughter and know they can’t be there all the time for her. Cassandra Guthrie as Fancy, Serena’s best friend, confidently swayed back and forth in liking and disliking her, as fickle teenagers sometimes do, to fit in with the crowd. Tom Keat as queer friend, Riley, assuredly marched to the beat of his own drum and soundly stood up for Serena many times when she didn’t have the energy to do so.

The presence and influence of Maja Ardal as Babe, Fancy’s grandmother, was strongly felt in the second act as the voice from the past in how issues of bullying and targeting were dealt with years ago. At times, I wanted to get out of my seats and deal directly with Pratt and Dodge, the ringleaders in this vendetta against Serena. Steven Vlahos and Andrei Preda maturely revealed a nice range in their respective character developments. As the boys’ police officer Uncle Si, Christian Lloyd made me shake my head in frustration and bewilderment in his tightly controlled performance. Initially, Si tried to excuse the boys’ behaviour initially as a ‘boys being boys’ playful teasing until it became abundantly clear to him Pratt and Dodge are hiding evidence.

Final comments: As a retired secondary school teacher, I was always looking for plays that could be brought to the schools that spoke to youth. Although the language in Who Killed Snow White? is graphic and harsh, Judith Thompson clearly and truthfully understands how kids speak to each other and deal with each other. Yes, the teen vernacular is at times hurtful and in your face. In confronting it head on, Thompson writes, “We see them more clearly so that we can reflect, look inward as well as outward, assess and perhaps even take action.” I would hope that Who Killed Snow White? is the first step in taking action.

Who Killed Snow White? continues to August 25 at 4th Line Theatre Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Road, Millbrook Ontario.  Performances begin at 6 pm. For tickets, please call the Box Office 1-800-814-005 or email at boxoffice@4thlinetheatre.on.ca.  For further information about the company visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.

A reminder that Who Killed Snow White? has a trigger warning of mature content. The play is not recommended for people under the age of 14.

Running time is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Directed by Kim Blackwell.