HONESTY written and directed by Jordan Tannahill (Suburban Beast/Koffler Centre of the Arts). At Honest Ed’s (581 Bloor West). To November 4, Tuesday-Friday 5 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. Free. kofflerarts.org, suburbanbeast.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN
You'll never see salespeople in the same way after attending Honesty, writer/director Jordan Tannahill's rich "performance intervention," a free show that takes you through the aisles and into the backrooms of Honest Ed's department store.
Working with performer Virgilia Griffith, Tannahill has created a two-part, site-specific event, a co-pro between Suburban Beast and the Koffler Centre of the Arts.
In the first half, called Honest Work, a volunteer at the store entrance directs you to Griffith, wearing an employee's shirt as she straightens shelves, stocks the bins and guides shoppers to what they're looking for. Feel free to interact with her, ask questions and get a sense of what it's like working in such an institution - still the best place and cheapest place in town to outfit a new apartment. (In character, she'll even share with you some shopping tips; apparently Honest Ed's food section is cheaper than the Metro chain for some items.)
In the market for a good hand-held pencil sharpener - you know, one that gives the pencil a really sharp point and doesn't break off the pencil lead during the sharpening -I asked Griffith where to find one. She took me on an aerobic-exercise jaunt through the store's various levels in search of my goal.
Even if you don't have time to catch the first half, don't miss Honest Stories, the second part (7:30 pm weekdays, 4:30 pm weekends). Based on interviews with seven long-time Ed's employees, it proves to be Honesty's heart.
Again you follow Griffith to various departments as she morphs into elderly head cashier Giovanna, recent mother Domenica in the baby department, sign painter Doug, a Scotsman who adds his own flourish to signs, and four others.
It's an eye-opening experience as these people reveal their own histories and what Honest Ed's means to them. If you're lucky, the real-life employee might be part of the audience.
Over the course of her 34 years at the store, Giovanna - who in her early days behind the cash register had to work out the seven per cent sales tax in her head - can paint a verbal portrait of her customers by their purchases. She figures she's literally touched as many people (by handing them change and receipts) as make up in Canada's population.
Bobby, who works the loading bay, had a run-in with store authorities as a rough kid but later came to work there; he tells us about his musical tastes and how he lost his racist attitudes. The Portuguese Mariah, who works in the pharmacy, never buys anything but Tylenol from the store; in a touching moment, she shares that medication with an important man in her life. No matter what work she's doing, Lerma, from the Philippines, misses her several families.
Griffith's strong work gives life to these people as she changes race, sex and age. Watch how she takes on a neutral face and stance at the end of each scene and then leads us to a new locale, starting to define the upcoming character physically by altering her walk and carriage.
The audience size changes during the walkabout performance, the store's real shoppers sometimes intrigued by what's happening and following along for part of the free show. Griffith continues to interact with them as much as she does when telling us the employees' stories. The immediate connection between actor and audience is as striking as the tales themselves.
Honesty is the story of a family, as one speaker puts it, and it's exhilarating to see that story told in such warm and generous fashion.