Review: ‘Welcome to My Underworld’ at the Tankhouse Theatre

Welcome to my Underworld (Grace Thompson, Samson Brown) Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.JPG
  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

The Tankhouse Theatre in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, the Distillery District, is home to Rare Theatre Company’s ‘Welcome to My Underworld’, a collection of voices of individuals of varying abilities wanting our attention to several modern-day social justice issues, each of them relevant and pertinent. These are performers and writers who travel to the underworld to discover and find their true voices.

Dramaturg and director Judith Thompson had the extremely important task of taking these words and weaving a through line in the staging of these voices in telling and sharing their stories. It’s a monumental task which sometimes worked beautifully and sometimes left me puzzled.

The simplicity of Brett Haynes’ set design and Sharmylae Taff-Fletcher’s lighting design allows to focus specifically on the key voice of the storyteller.  There is a tree with branches painted on the back wall with the tree’s reflection on the floor. This reflection leads to four playing areas – stage right is an angled picnic table, upstage right and slightly off-centre stage is a swing. Down left is a ripped wing tipped chair where we are able to see some of its ‘insides’ coming out.  Far stage left is the spot for musician Olivia Shortt who plays saxophone music throughout the production and periodically provides a few sound effects.  Ms. Shortt’s selection in preshow music looping through various musical genres was pleasing to my ear.

Monica Dottor’s choreography and movement of the performers in their reaching up to the tree and then connecting with each other heightened the dramatic tension of the moment.

The strength of this production lies in the terrific seven-member ensemble of voices who I believed every single moment in telling their story. From my front row perch, I saw tremendous emotional expression in their eyes which made me pay attention to their stories. Quite often, the performer broke the fourth wall, pinpointed various audience members and addressed them which did make for an uncomfortable moment if you happen to make eye contact, but that’s what theatre is supposed to do.  It is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable at times.

There are some noteworthy moments I’d like to highlight. Carolyn Hetherington’s monologue of a senior living with what we assume is dementia captured my attention. At first, to see Ms. Hetherington read her monologue from cards is a tad disarming as I thought what hasn’t she memorized the monologue?  And then it occurred to me that a comment was made about any senior living with dementia who must learn to cope with the changes. For Ms. Hetherington’s monologue, using the cards is a way to deal with her situation. That was a clever touch.

I had the opportunity to see Grace Thompson powerful performance last summer at 4th Line’s ‘Who Killed Snow White?’ Without giving away any plot, I was most impressed with her performance in playing two characters. Bilal Baig’s monologue of a genderqueer individual looking for acceptance is heartbreakingly real. Maddie Bautista’s teacher explaining the onset of womanhood to young girls certainly made us laugh but made its’ point.

The challenge of this production was wondering if ‘Welcome to My Underworld’ is either a play about awareness of the presented social issues or a play about change regarding these social issues. Yes, these are important ones which need to be heard – transgenderism, seniors living with dementia, wheelchair accessibility for individuals are only three covered here.  However, my question – if this is a play about awareness, has society heard enough about these issues that we are becoming numb to them? It’s comparable to a staff meeting where issues are raised that we’ve heard before and it’s the old “Yah, yah, we know, let’s get on with it.”

I turned to my invited guest and the end of the first act and said, “I’m exhausted and tired right now”. There was so much to take in that I was confused. What was I to focus on?  So much was being thrown at me so quickly that I didn’t have time to think. The human mind can only absorb so much before it tunes out. I found this at the end of the first act.

If ‘Welcome to My Underworld’ is a play about change regarding these issues, can change really occur after seeing this play? On this opening night, I saw a company who were aware of and in tune with each other which is an important element of ensemble work. Yes, these issues became clear as each of these characters found his or her voice near the end of the play; nevertheless, is it a realistic assumption to say that twenty first century members of society will accept these found voices? That’s the challenge I was left with at the conclusion of the second act. To find one’s voice still means that we must continue to work as an ensemble in our daily co-existence with each other. A found voice with change might not be acceptable to another individual for whatever reason.

If ‘Welcome to My Underworld’ is a play about awareness and change, this is a mighty tall task to fulfill. If so, the script will have to examined once again.

‘Welcome to My Underworld’ continues to May 25 at the Tankhouse Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. For tickets visit www.soulepper.ca, www.youngcentre.ca or call 1-416-866-8666.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.

Photo of Grace Thompson and Samson Brown by Sophia Thompson-Campbell

Dramaturg and Director: Judith Thompson, Set Designer: Brett Haynes, Lighting Designer: Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher, Composer and Sound Designer: Olivia Shortt, Choreographer: Monica Dottor, Stage Manager: Jenna Borsato