Tightrope, a play by R.J. Downes currently playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace in the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival, explores the familial dynamics of a travelling circus and seeks to reveal the dysfunction of the grimy underbelly of an institution built on entertaining audiences and making people laugh.
The story is a predictable one. A young girl named Sheila has been born into the circus business and has found herself quickly ensnared by her alcoholic father and her frigid philandering mother when suddenly a charming young stranger arrives to inspire her to seek the freedom to pursue her own ambitions.
There is much in this play that works. Downes excels particularly well in his evocative monologues; there is an especially interesting prologue in this play, a perverse fairytale about the decay of the universe, which I wished had been featured more prominently in the rest of the piece. Sheila, played with a nice balance of sweetness and defiance by Stephanie Seaton, has an utterly endearing relationship with her father, the circus’ lion tamer, which I thought could have been a more central aspect of the story. Will O’Hare plays the father with such richness that I wanted his emotions and his experiences to have more of an impact on the narrative. Adam Seybold plays Mark, the young stagehand who comes to rescue Sheila from her cage, and like with O’Hare, there is something in Seybold’s performance that gives Mark the potential to be more than a thinly disguised solution to Sheila’s problems.
Director Kate Fenton makes good use of levels, although at times it is difficult for her to convey the perils of the tightrope walker both symbolically and effectively. June Morrow seems to be struggling with her portrayal of Sheila’s mother, a character without a single redeeming quality that borders on being utterly devoid of humanity. Morrow has watered the Ring Mistress’ bitchiness down, but perhaps the character would be more gratifying for the audience if Morrow instead embraced and accentuated her vileness and truly committed to her role as despicable villainess.
The most wonderful aspect of Tightrope is an incredible performance by Richard Beaune as a mute stagehand named Dodo who performs three magnificently charming and delightfully compelling mimed clown routines which capture the very best of the circus spirit. Dodo is the beating heart of this play, and I think the show would benefit greatly if all the actors had such unique and strong characters to play.
In all, I think Tightrope has a lot of potential for further development, but in this version it is for Richard Beaune’s scenes that I would recommend the show.
Tightrope plays at Theatre Passe Murialle (16 Ryerson Avenue) at the following times:
Thursday July 1st 8:15pm
Friday July 2nd 1:15pm
Monday July 5th 8:30pm
Tuesday July 6th 1:00pm
Friday July 9th 4:00pm
Sunday July 11th 8:30pm
All tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the Fringe Hotline at 416.966.1062 or online at www.fringetoronto.com.