MINOTAUR By Alison McElwain, Christopher Stanton and the company, directed by Stanton, with James Cade, Chris Hanratty and Tricia Lahde. Presented by UnSpun Theatre at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79A St. George). Opens Wednesday (May 28) and runs to June 7, Wednesday-?Saturday 8 pm. $15. TO Tix, www.totix.ca or www.unspuntheatre.com. Rating: NNNNN
When’s the last time a theatreproduction scared the shit out of you?
That’s what UnSpun Theatre hopes to do with Minotaur, a reworking of their 2006 Fringe hit.
It’s unusual to see the horror genre onstage, but the adventurous collective troupe that scored with Thy Neighbour’s Wife and Head-?Smashed-?In Buffalo tackles it.
But with a twist. They’re not going for cheap “boo” thrills, but instead creating believable characters.
“Rarely does a horror movie have strongly written characters,” smiles James Cade, one of the production’s three actors. “But that’s just what good theatre does: introduce you to people in whom you become invested, letting you into their lives and the troubling issues that drive them.
“There are those who say horror and believable characters can’t exist in the same play, but I think Minotaur does just that.”
Minotaur begins as a university lecture in sociological methodology, applied to the mysterious disappearance of Kieran and Nora, a couple who bought a house that may or may not be haunted. A prof and two grad students lead us into the investigation, complete with diaries, audio and video tapes and re-enactments of the couple’s discoveries in the house.
“From the start, we’ve never shied away from frightening the hell out of the audience,” admits director Christopher Stanton, who co-?wrote the script with the company. “The Fringe version hit a raw nerve. We got feedback from people about how visceral they found the theatrical experience, how they lost sleep after seeing it.”
Cade jumps in to say that his sister-?in-?law’s already apologized for not attending the remount; she’s had too many nightmares since the first version.
So how do you go about writing a scary play? The participants brought in ideas about what terrifies them, did research in books and online, created improvs based on their findings and had Stanton and Alison McElwain shape the resulting material.
Notably, the company also drew on films like the Japanese versions of The Grudge and The Ring and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
“We gravitated toward dreams as the basis for our inspiration,” recalls Stanton, nominated for a Dora for his performance in Buffalo Jump. “Rather than outright shock, we’re going for the sense of impending horror, the feeling of shifting out of control, of something on the periphery of your vision that you can’t quite confront.
“That idea set the mood of the piece, which we’re trying to achieve through specific lighting and the choice of images the audience sees. We’re hoping to create a show that’s suggestively nightmarish.”
Cade shifts back and forth between the roles of a “real” narrator grad student (also named James Cade) and the troubled Kieran.
“They’re quite different. James is the analytical sceptic, while the romantic Kieran tries to convince himself he’s in exactly the kind of loving relationship he wants.”
There’s quite a gap between the two characters, but it parallels the idea of holes, both literal and figurative, that play a major role in Minotaur.
Nora and Kieran find a large hole beneath the house, though the house plans and the investigation of the academics reveal no such cavity. Similarly, the young couple find themselves increasingly driven apart by tears in their relationship.
“If a romantic comedy is about the unexplained reason why people fall in love, Minotaur is about the unexplained reasons these two fall out of love, which is centred on the hole they discover,” notes Cade.
“It’s about anti-?chemistry,” continues Stanton. “There’s this hole in the middle of the house that Kieran and Nora have invested in; Kieran wants to explore what’s at the centre of his new world, while Nora, horrified by it, desperately wants to board it up.”
Does it all make sense? According to the two artists, it doesn’t have to.
“While it’s a tricky show to talk about,” says Cade, “Minotaur is a theatre piece where two plus two doesn’t add up to four.”