BLACKBIRD by Adam Rapp, directed by Kimberly Purtell, with Kate Meehan and Chris Reynolds. Presented by Crate at 403 Yonge (north of Gerrard). Previews begin tonight (March 17), opens Tuesday (March 22) and runs to April 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 7 pm. $20-$25, Sunday pwyc, previews $10, stu/srs discount. 416-831-0543, www.totix.ca. Rating: NNNNN
You go up two narrow flights of stairs and into a room that looks like it's been trashed and abandoned. No - there's a bed, some furniture, other signs of people living here.
That's the audience's introduction to Blackbird, the second piece from the exciting Crate Productions. The company scored last year with a production of Tape, playing in a rented room at the Gladstone Hotel. Each show could accommodate an audience of 17.
Successful? It ran 10 weeks longer than originally scheduled. Now the company - Kate Meehan and Chris Reynolds - turn to another site-specific work, Adam Rapp's gritty love story set in a room on New York's Canal Street. The Toronto location is at Yonge and Gerrard, and director Kimberly Purtell, who spent some time in New York last December working on Daniel MacIvor's Cul De Sac, sees parallels to the Big Apple setting.
"The feel of the neighbourhood is much the same," says Purtell, "except that in Toronto people from uptown don't appear on Saturday mornings shopping for knockoff designer handbags."
You can tell by the lighting on a Purtell production that she knows her way around design. She was turned on to the production side of theatre by teacher Peter Freund at University College. After graduation, she worked more often as a lighting designer than as a director, though she regularly keeps up her directing chops with Fringe and SummerWorks shows, notably in her role as co-artistic director of Straw Dogs.
Sitting in Blackbird's 15-by-24 room, Purtell talks enthusiastically about the play's setting.
"We want the audience to be part of this environment, not to see the show in a proper theatre where they know what to expect," says Purtell, who's toured with da da kamera and Theatre Smith Gilmore. "Viewers are going to be confronted with a different world as soon as they enter the outside door."
As for the script, some audiences will be attracted to the characters and others turned off by them.
"The playwright's been smart to have the language of the play and the relationship it depicts work in opposition to each other.
"There's a rawness, a shock value and harshness to the language," she notes, "and then it's up to me and the actors to make the audience see the characters as vulnerable and loving."
We don't see that caring right off. Baylis is a former drug addict with control issues. Froggy's been experimenting with drugs and has a scary history. "But theirs is a love that goes beyond passion; they're comfortable doing things with and for each other that most people would run away from.
"You might not see it at first, but there's a parallel between Baylis and Froggy and those senior couples, married for decades, you see walking hand in hand at the local mall."