When I was an undergraduate student at Dalhousie University, Zuppa Circus Theatre, now known most often just as Zuppa Theatre, was the very beating heart of Halifax’s optimistically emerging independent theatre scene. Zuppa shows were ones that threatened to tear down all preconceptions we had of what theatre “could” or “should” be and encouraged an entire generation of Haligonian theatre artists to delve deeper into their imaginations and mine the “whole animal” of their bodies in the pursuit of unique, dynamic, evocative stories. Now, with the independent theatre of Halifax maturing all around it, Zuppa Theatre continues to push boundaries, to forge new artistic partnerships and to take its audience into new and exciting territory. I saw the company’s show, The Debacle, last April at the Plutonium Playhouse in Halifax, and now it is in Toronto as part of the New Groundswell Festival at Nightwood Theatre. Here is the review that I wrote of the show when I saw it, the play is a stunning example of how Zuppa is growing, like a hearty tree bearing bountiful and nourishing fruit.
The Debacle was created as an ensemble piece, but, unlike its predecessors, it is a tour de force one woman marvel performed only by Zuppa founding member Susan Leblanc-Crawford and co-created with director Ann-Marie Kerr. Leblanc-Crawford plays Margaret, a smart, scientific academic, for whom paralyzing grief has trapped her in the attic amid jars filled with memories and a heart full of guilt. There has been an accident. Margaret’s younger sister, Claire, lies in a hospital bed. The phone rings but Margaret cannot answer. Instead, we are brought into the world of before, as each jar has captured a bit of the past: frozen frogs, painted frogs, stolen penny candy from Fred’s Store, Royal Weddings, drunken teenaged joyrides, and secret dreams. The phone’s continual interruptions remind us of the harrowing impending present, but Margaret’s refusal to answer its call suggests that she has disjointed herself from reality; she is lost and cannot move with the fear of her unknown future.
Susan Leblanc-Crawford gives a beautiful performance as Margaret. She is mostly meticulously controlled in her telling of the tales, scientific facts merged with sisterly colloquialism. She is passionate about the observation of the jars and seamlessly floats between characterizing the sisters as precocious and delightfully scrappy children, boisterous teenagers and adults sobered and divided by pain without resorting to broad stereotypes. Leblanc-Crawford also makes great use of a quiet intensity which is hauntingly effective in expressing Margaret’s emotions and makes the moments when she suddenly snaps all the more poignant and gripping. There is a moment where Margaret breaks out into Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, which Leblanc-Crawford commits to with two hundred percent, singing direct from the soul. This is the apex of the play and the moment when it becomes vividly clear that Margaret has drifted into an alternate reality, but it is one, I think, that is familiar to anyone who has faced unbearable loss.
The most stunning and innovative aspect of this play is Ann-Marie Kerr’s powerful direction, which uses some of the most simple theatrical conventions to give a walloping punch in perfect synchronicity with Leblanc-Crawford’s performance. Margaret is clad only in a bathrobe, her hair wet, her hands submerging periodically into a bucket of ice, and the coldness is perceptible throughout the theatre. Leblanc-Crawford is literally situated in an alcove above the stage, she remains on her knees for most of the show, but the play seems anything but static. She is surrounded by glass jars, which the audience expects could come crashing down at any moment, which creates genuine tension throughout the tiny space, and Kerr magically releases it in a glorious moment by having the ice rain down onto the empty stage instead. The play ends with a gorgeous and heart rending image of birthday candles in a glass jar, proof that sometimes the most minimal effects can have the most tremendous effects.
This play hit me directly in the heart and stayed there, like a golf ball of emotion waiting to melt, for days afterward. Halifax is extremely fortunate to have Zuppa Theatre creating such world-class theatre in its midst and undoubtedly these theatre artists will continue to inspire the younger generations into the next decade and beyond.
The Debacle plays as part of Nightwood’s Groundswell Festival at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street, Toronto) on the following days:
Friday, December 2, 8pm
Sunday, December 4, 2pm
Monday, December 5, 8pm
Thursday, December 8, 8pm
Saturday, December 10, 8pm.
Festival passes to all three Groundswell productions, access to festival readings, in conversations, receptions and a 10% discount on all Groundswell Masterclasses are $45. Single tickets for The Debacle (and all other shows) are $20 each. For more information please visit this website or call 416.944.1740 Extension 7.