Theatre Gargantua in association with Factory Theatre
Written by Michael Spence
Directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas
Starring Stephanie Belding, Cosette Derome, Conor Green, Ron Kennell, Kat Sandler, Michael Spence
Runs until November 26 @ Factory Studio Theatre
By Jen Handley
Although some of the publicity for Theatre Gargantua’s latest piece, Imprints, suggests that it is a ghost story, don’t go to see it with the expectation of finding the usual transparent disgruntled ex-beings in period garb; Hallowe’en and its cliché-heavy attendants have come and gone. Theatre Gargantua’s production has not only started from scratch to create its version of exactly what a ghost is, the company has set up the haunted house inside the unconscious mind of its heroine. In fact, Theatre Gargantua has managed to repurpose an Alice in Wonderland format to create something few ghost stories can: a sincere meditation on death. It’s unpretentious, inventively-premised, and, most surprisingly of all, with exuberant playfulness.
In the first moments of the play, the faces of a doctor and nurse, looming hugely as projections on a screen at the edge of the stage, are reassuring their patient as she drifts into what we soon find out is a medically-induced mental and physical “standstill” she has chosen in hopes of surviving until medical science can find a cure for a congenital disease which has killed every one of her paternal ancestors and is now coming for her. They promise the patient, a woman named Lily, that this suspension will seem like the blink of an eye, that she will experience nothing during this temporary death (a prediction many of us might find reasonably likely for regular death). However their masked faces blur into sinister, unfamiliar shapes, and as darkness envelopes Lily’s mind, we hear a horrified whisper, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Something’s gone wrong. I’m still here.” Moreover, she’s not alone.
The undiscovered country Lily enters into at this point is full of surprises, and part of the pleasure of watching the play is figuring out what and who all these are. She begins to experience memories that are not hers, and has even less control over her negotiation of the landscape than she does over the characters who occupy it. The world is constantly shifting around the bewildered Lily, and the all bets are off when it comes to the laws of physics. Aside from some overly-choreographed, transitions, the cast executes some very tricky and memorable visual effects within the ultra-minimalist set and makes them look effortless, forming a human tree for a character to perch in one moment, creating a churning sea out of fabric through which Lily runs, in another. The imagery gets more and more unpredictable as the play progresses, as though keeping one step ahead of Lily’s ability to process them.
Even more distressing than the landscape, however, is the information it reveals to her. She begins piece to together not just the history of a disease, but of a crime, and, in a recurring nightmare within a nightmare, meets a cowering, bitter man called Than, who is afraid of being killed by Lily, but also, for a reason you won’t find out until the end very interested in killing her. Will he succeed? Will she find it in herself to get rid of him instead? Can she make peace with him?
All this might sound extremely heavy-handed, and it is, but it’s also very down to earth. Some of the deathscape’s inhabitants, most memorably a trio of beings pho crawl on all fours and speak in rhymed couplets, vacillate between quasi-Shakespearian dialect and contemporary slang, which is silly enough to be completely disarming. More importantly the sincerity of Stephanie Belding’s Lily’s confusion as she navigates this bizarre place, and her grudging belief in the reality of what she finds both sells us on its bizarreness and makes it seem unavoidably real. Her determination to be nice, to apply the standards behavior of the living world to this one is the source of a good deal of the play’s surprisingly plentiful humor.
Although it occasionally gets a little too wrapped up in explaining the rules of the premise, this production puts its juicy sci-fi to work very effectively. It might not be rational, predictable, or understandable, or fair, but by building a concrete world out of the associations we have with death, and by not only personifying it but going so far as to humanize it, Imprints offers a fascinating illustration of our relationship to it.