Sunday, February 15, 2015

Two-Hander Text: Twisted at the Factory Theatre

Photo by Racheal McCaig

If it needed proving that Canadian culture no longer revolves around wilderness, forests and the snow-covered North, the gritty urban drama Twisted would be the proof. This two-hander from playwrights Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (Scratch, Sudden Death) and Joseph Jomo Pierre (Who Knew Grannie, Shakespeare’s Nigga) is set in the heart of darkest Toronto, in the seldom-seen space populated by addicts, dealers and sex-trade workers. The show is said to be a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but that seems like a bit of a reach. It’s true that the two main characters are named Nancy (Susanna Fournier) and Oliver (Ngabo Nabea), and that other characters, unseen, are named Sikes and Dodger. But that recycling of names is about as far as the similarities go. Furthermore, and more significantly, there is no redemptive plot line in Twisted, no kindly Mr. Brownlow coming to the rescue.

This Nancy and Oliver are both pretty much doomed. Nancy is a 23-year-old webcam stripper (known online as NasstyFresh), working for the digital pimp Sikes and abusing Oxycontin, also known as “hillbilly heroin.” We learn of her loveless childhood in small-town Ontario through a series of angry, rancorous monologues on such subjects as school-yard bullies, playground design and Niagara Falls, and through text messages projected on the stage’s backdrop. These texts are mostly exchanged with 17-year-old Oliver – she calls him Ollie, he calls her Lady Porcelain – a product of Ontario’s foster-child system. Oliver’s monologues are something altogether different, delivered in hip-hop rhythms and poetic language, also angry and bitter, but without the drug sensibility. We learn of his upbringing in foster care and the maternal woman, “Big Bird” – he gives everyone nicknames, Nancy has told us – who raised him. Nancy is Sikes’ “bottom girl,” charged with running the other women in his stable of strippers. As such, one of her jobs is to meet the young girls when they arrive in Toronto, enticed by Sikes’ seductive descriptions of big-city life. She is to meet Rose at Dundas Square – “the only part of the city that made sense: concrete and pretense” – and turn her out into the sex-trade world. But in a development that turns the story sharply, Nancy has determined that she can’t go through with Sikes’ plan. She decides that Rose is “someone to save,” and enlists Ollie in a plan to set the youngster free: Nancy introduces Rose to him and he drives her out of the city to Big Bird’s place, where she will be safe and out of harm’s way. Afterward, Nancy and Ollie will flee the city, and Sikes. 

Photo by Racheal McCaig
While Ollie is on his mission, Nancy returns to her place to collect her belongings, but it soon becomes clear she’s there mostly to score one more delivery of Oxycontin, but her dealer is extremely slow to arrive. Her webcam customers grow restive waiting for the show to begin, and Sikes, who has figured out what’s going on, is on the way. Ollie is also on the way, driving fast and trying to get her out of the apartment – “Don’t let hillbilly heron [sic] take us down,” he texts – before Sikes’ inevitable arrival. But Nancy will not, cannot, leave until her drugs arrive. This scene is excruciatingly tense, and builds to a climax that horrifies even though it is more suggested than seen. Oliver is sent on his way by a final text from Sikes: “She didn’t name you. Get your foot on the gas, don’t ever come back.”

There’s a lot of tech in Twisted, much of it in those projected text messages. But there’s a lot of lighting, too, courtesy of designer Simon Rossiter, nicely and subtly suggesting changes in time, place and mood. Denyse Karn’s set is a fairly simple affair of platforms and steps, with an all-purpose backdrop that shows the text messages well, and with one pop-out piece morphing into Nancy’s apartment. The texting is a big part of the show, of course. (In the program, Corbeil-Coleman says, “Joe and I wrote all the text messages as text messages to each other over a couple of months through our phones.”) Like texting itself, it is an efficient way to transmit exposition and information, and even emotion. But also like texting, it is cold. With so much of the show being delivered in short takes that must be read, and with monologues written by two different playwrights, there is remarkably little contact between the two actors. In fact, there is only one short scene in which Nancy and Ollie are face-to-face and talking to each other. Given the intensity of their relationship, you might expect more dramatic, even romantic, interaction.

Still, director Nigel Shawn Williams moves the cast around the set briskly, the story is well supported by the lighting, sound (Richard Lee) and music (Hagler), and events unfurl at a good pace. The actors deliver the script with considerable spirit and telling physical touches. I wasn’t sure I bought Fournier as an angry, foul-mouthed sex worker at first, but she convinced me. Nabea, a student at Ryerson University, shows real talent and charisma, and a respectable voice for Ollie’s rappish, hip-hoppy lines; if he were a singer, you’d say he has good pipes.

Twisted runs at Factory Theatre until Feb. 22. The advance word notwithstanding, it’s not what I’d call Dickensian. But if you want a bracing look at the dark side of urban life, this is just the thing.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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