ryan hollyman, frank cox-o’connell, eric goulem, maev beaty, michelle monteith
photo by chris gallow
Last season I became utterly captivated by TheatreFront
’s The Mill
, a series of three plays, originally conceived by Daryl Cloran and Matthew MacFadzean, but each written and directed by a different set of theatre artists, telling a ghost story richly rooted in the history of this country. Parts I-III were gripping, sometimes even terrifying, magical explorations of home, loss, belonging and how the spirits and shadows of the past inevitably inform the present. The Mill
went on to be nominated for seven Dora Awards, winning four including Outstanding Production. Now the final chapter The Mill (Part 4): Ash
written by Damien Atkins is playing at the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
and it is a fascinating, dark, richly probing end to the series.
Atkins brings us into a bleak post-apocalyptic future when the Mill has become home to five little creatures clambering to survive. Beaver, Rabbit, Bear, Fox and Bird, as their names suggest, walk a fine line between being children and animals, as they have indeed burrowed into this found place, their survival instincts sharp and keen, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are, at least childlike, humans, like Lost Boys (and Girls) living in the wretched dystopia of Neverland. Their memories of better times, the days when there was “so much of everything” are varied and vague, patched together, but clung to like a comforting quilt. This suggests that they were very young, or perhaps not even born, when the Earth became a dark, cold wasteland. Yet, despite its new naive inhabitants, the Mill is still very much alive and soaked in the blood and muffled cries of its past. Lyca, the ghost of a child usually frenzied in her desire for revenge, is still here and still wants to bring death to the trespassers.
How can Lyca expect her past to be honoured now when the only inhabitants of the former town of Brody can barely remember cars, pie and cinnamon, let alone the indigenous peoples who first settled this land, hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of years ago? An argument can be made that as the descendents of the first settlers of this town, even these children are complicit to the evil deeds of their ancestors, for as Lyca stresses to them through inhabiting Rabbit’s dreams, they are not innocent. Humanity’s tarnished soul, and its propensity for repeating its own mistakes is embodied in Ash by the Father figure, who returns midway through the play, revealing some dark and twisted secrets about how the older more experienced man has been shaping the young minds he has been left in charge of rearing. When he is confronted by his (now prodigal) children about his immoral actions, he tells them that they are all doomed to follow in his footsteps, mirroring Lyca’s philosophy that there should be no redemption, for the young just replace the old and everything continues on just the same, disconnected from the Earth and one another.
Atkins’ resolution to the Cycle at first seemed a bit of a simple one to me, given the complexities not only in this play, but in the three preceding it as well, yet the simplicity of it is actually quite poignant and sad. Bear, tormented by Father’s actions and filled with despair at the thought of bringing a new child into such a cruel world, is the first, the only one, who is brave enough to surge through the horror, the terror, to surpass blame, defensiveness, selfishness, pride and egoism and to finally connect to Lyca. It appears as though it should have been so simple, but upon further consideration, it is exactly that complexity implicit in all the Mill characters, that made it so impossible, until now.
It is remarkable how four plays, each directed by a different person, can have such an overlapping and distinctive aesthetic. For, indeed, Ash, which was directed by Vikki Anderson, is hauntingly reminiscent of Part I: Now We Are Brody and Part 2: The Huron Bride. The lighting design by (Dora Award winner) Andrea Lundy had goose bumps climbing up my spine every time the lights went dark and the sense of doom, tension and quickly accelerating horror was immediate and apparent from the very first scene. Ash is more of a psychological thriller and mystery, but that doesn’t make the intensity of the ghostly darkness any less terrifying. There is a moment when Father returns, a lumbering shadowed form at an open door, the apocalypse whirling in the darkness outside him, that at once is chilling in its parallel to moments in the other plays, and also has the power to wordlessly express exactly what the relationship is between this “Father” and his “children.”
Richard Greenblatt plays Father and he is terrific in bringing an element of Jekyll and Hyde to the character, two disparate aspects of Father that initially don’t seem to be able to exist in the same body. The children, who are significantly older than they appear, are played by Maev Beaty (Beaver), Frank Cox-O’Connell (Rabbit), Eric Goulem (Bear), Ryan Hollyman (Fox) and Michelle Monteith (Bird). They have a beautiful chemistry with one another, quite like siblings, with their own hierarchy and traditions and, especially initially, a kind gentleness and care for one another that endears them all immediately, despite their various shortcomings. It is obvious that they have each been traumatized, they do not like to sleep close to one another, even when they are scared, and each one is simultaneously acting out and struggling for survival within the pack at the same time. Beaty plays Beaver like an overlooked middle child, (she acts about eleven years old), who continually wants to be seen and heard, but harbours her resentment in feeling undervalued quietly. Cox-O’Connell’s Rabbit is the youngest; he acts about seven or eight, and he is bright, inquisitive, sensitive and honest. He has not hardened as much as the rest of them, which perhaps is the reason why Lyca chooses him to speak through. Eric Goulem’s Bear hardly speaks, like a young teenage boy who has retreated so far into himself he appears like an island impossible to penetrate. He shows great kindness, however, and great courage and has a natural instinct toward protecting the others. Goulem speaks wonders just in his sad eyes and the smallest of gestures. Hollyman’s Fox is the most overtly angry of the group, like a wild ten year old who lashes out at everyone and everything because his heart is breaking, but who lacks the maturity of character to be able to control or even fully understand the depth and intensity of his emotions and his thoughts. Hollyman is the most heartbreaking of the play, as Fox seems to be the one most in need of a parent and the least likely to find one. Michelle Monteith is the maternal, responsible Bird, she seems like a mature thirteen or fourteen year old, but still with a child’s soul (she still sleeps with a Cabbage Patch doll, after all). Monteith brings huge heart to her character, a gentleness of spirit but also a tragic grappling with the loss of her innocence and ultimately, her childhood. All five are vivid in their ability to bring integrity, sincerity and depth to their young characters in performances that never feel false or forced. Natasha Greenblatt has inherited Lyca from the brilliant Holly Lewis, and I am thrilled to report that she is just as terrifying, physically stunning, compelling, wild and fervent as the Lyca that former Mill audiences have grown to know and love (and who possibly still haunts their dreams).
In all, Ash is a beautifully imaginative and well written, hopeful, yet also a sober cautionary tale, from Damien Atkins, which lives and breathes with a pulsing heartbeat at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
The Mill wants you here: you should go.
The Mill Part 4: Ash plays on the following days:
January 22- 2pm and 8pm. January 24-8pm. January 29th. 2pm and 8pm.
The Mill Part I: Now We Are Brody returns and plays on the following days:
January 20th- 8pm. January 26th-8pm.
The Mill Part II: The Huron Bride returns and plays on the following days:
January 21st-8pm. January 27th. 8pm.
The Mill Part III: The Woods returns and plays on the following days:
January 25th. 8pm. January 28th. 8pm.
All performances are at the Tank House Theatre in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street). For more information or to book your tickets please visit www.youngcentre.ca or call the Box Office at 416.866.8666.