Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin Travels a Dark, Compelling Path

How far would you go in search of the truth? How well do we know our limits, our boundaries that keep us from being consumed by a hungry darkness? Ryan Gray explores these questions in Beneath The Skin, a thriller/mystery that boldly ventures into the abyss.

Directed by Jenna Rodgers, Gray’s Beneath The Skin stages reporter Carmin Morgan’s (Justine Westby) exclusive interview with convicted murderer Colton Cassio (Justin Michael Carriere), better known as the Portrait Killer. Colton’s long violent history – a history that started at a young age – fascinates Carmin who will stop at nothing to learn as much as she can about him and his victims. Carmin quickly learns, however, that is just not Colton’s crimes that make him a dangerous man, but also his charisma which threatens to take her down a path she never intended to travel.

The focus of Carmin’s interview is centered around Erin (Claire Bolton), Colton’s first victim whom he fell deeply in love with. Via flashbacks, the audience sees how an awkward 20-year-old Colton (Jacob Lesiuk) eventually came to befriend and then murder Erin while away at university.

Gray skillfully creates tension between Colton and Carmin by rarely letting one person hold power too long between them. While Carmin sees herself locked in a game of wits against Colton, Colton sees the two engaged in a more emotional game, a game of wills. And that is what makes Colton so dangerous, he has nothing to lose; he has given himself over to the darkness that calls him inside. Yet, victory is not so assured, Colton comes to realize, as Carmin’s determination for the truth reveals itself to be something more than a professional obligation.

Colton and Erin’s young love, though sometimes a bit too sweet, is crafted very well by Gray. There is a certain sadness in knowing Erin’s eventual fate, but never dulled anticipation. The interplay between the past and present delivers just enough information to maintain our attention. And then, Gray hits the audience with the inevitable which is both very creative and disturbing. (The audience gasps in horror as the scene becomes obvious).

Where the production fails the script is in its blocking. Noticeably challenged by the limited space available inside the Motel Theatre, the rising tension of the play breaks periodically when Carriere and Westby have to stand and carry the table and their seats to the side in order to make way for a flashback scene, sometimes while fully lit. The whole business seriously throws off the established atmosphere.

Despite the proximity of the audience to the actors (the Motel Theatre has a 50 seat capacity), there is no warning for the audience about the use of live smoke. The sudden inhalation of cigarette smoke distracts from the play’s dramatic conclusion.

Carriere and Westby are truly a force together. Carriere displays an unsettling, yet alluring confidence that make very real the presence of danger, to which Westby responds to with an exhilarating tenacity. Westby is truly firm in her character’s resolve, and that makes her performance all the more exciting to watch.

Bolton and Lesiuk share a pleasant chemistry on stage. Bolton is very easy to like as the cheery, good-natured Claire. Lesiuk plays the young, unassuming Colton with ease. There is a bit of a strain, though, when Lesiuk’s character begins to embrace his more sinister side, but the script is more at fault here than Lesiuk. Lesiuk’s performance during his final scene will have audience members abuzz in the lobby afterwards.

Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin is a thrilling piece of work that leaves an impression on any who dare step into the darkness.

Ryan Gray’s Beneath The Skin runs July 22 – July 28 at the Motel Theatre as part of the Common Ground Festival. The full festival runs until Aug 1st.

For more information about the Common Ground Festival, visit: http://www.commongroundyyc.com/

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