This year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category are Greg Everett (Gullywhump) and Sophie Tremblay-Pitre (With Love, Josephine). Everett and Tremblay-Pitre’s one-act plays, presented as workshopped productions, are running together as a double-bill at Memorial Hall. Both plays received dramaturgical support from playwright Rob Kempsen, NotaBle Acts’ artist-in-residence for the 2019 festival.
Moving between the past and present, Tremblay-Pitre’s With Love, Josephine tells the story of Jo (Mika Driedger) and her grandmother, Josephine (Julianne Richard). It’s 2018, and Josephine has recently passed away. Her former lover Charles (Miguel Roy) visits her house to drop off a box of keepsakes to her daughter Lynn (Kelsey Hines). Among the keepsakes is Josephine’s diary which Jo begins to read in secret.
The year is 1956, and Josephine is a young woman trying to make her own choices in life. She wants to marry Charles, but her family doesn’t approve of him. Why? Charles is not from a wealthy family, and he’s French. Josephine’s mother Dorothy (Hines) has someone else in mind for her daughter, someone who would be better for her future. Josephine struggles with self-doubt and fear of failure. She feels helpless against the expectations of her mother, her community, and the man she loves.
Josephine’s story mirrors the issues Jo is facing in the present. Both women are trying their best, but their best doesn’t seem good enough for anyone. Loneliness begins to creep in as so much of their story is wrapped inside someone else’s. And so, what hope can either Jo or Josephine feel for the future when they can’t see their authentic selves ahead of them?
With Love, Josephine sees English and French sharing the same stage. Although it’s not necessary to know French, a basic comprehension of the language does help with appreciating the flavour of Charles’ dialogue. It’s important to note that sometimes Charles makes an effort to translate his thoughts into English, for the benefit of Josephine and some portion of the audience. The play’s bilingualism enriches the drama between Josephine and Charles.
The production is visually interesting with characters entering and exiting from different points of Memorial Hall. Blizzard transforms Josephine’s home into a place where past and present clash just as much as they melt into one another.
Driedger brings tenderness to the role of Jo, a tenderness that Hines squashes as Lynn and Dorothy. Hines plays the mother characters with the firmness of someone hardened by experience. She is a steamroller run amok. Richard is fantastic as Josephine. Richard and Roy bring out a lot from the other. Anthony Bryan plays the character of Tom with a cool light-hearted energy.
Directed by Miguel Roy, Gullywhump tells the story of two brothers and their pilgrimage to spread their sister’s ashes. Elisha (Alex Rioux) and Saul (Alex Fullerton) revisit painful memories from their childhood as they venture towards Abigail’s final resting place. The brothers are not alone in the cursed forest of Burntland — the same setting as Everett’s Carrion Birds which premiered last year at NotaBle Acts. In pursuit of the two brothers is a Gullywhump (Laura-Beth Bird), a creature of darkness from their father’s old stories. The audience learns the story of the Gullywhump from Abraham (Scott Harris) in segments.
Don’t let all the talk about black magic and the supernatural fool you, Gullywhump is at its heart a story about coping with loss and trauma. Eli and Saul’s trek through darkness revolves around transformation and letting go. The dark is in between and all around the brothers. They can’t see the other in front of them. Eli and Saul project their regrets onto the other person. The brothers’ pilgrimage is a journey towards the light, towards clarity and understanding.
The Gullywhump is a mysterious, nearly unimaginable creature. Is it a monster? No, maybe not. That seems inaccurate. The creature, animated wonderfully by Bird, is seemingly the physical manifestation of fear and death. Its true form is difficult to grasp, yet its presence is known. Abigail (Brenna Gauthier) befriends the Gullywhump before taking her life.
And so, Gullywhump is not a play about a monster that needs a stake impaled through its heart. Yes, there is a monster, and that monster is the children’s father Abraham who sexually abused Abigail. The ritual of laying Abigail to peace is grounded in healing. Abigail’s spirit joins the Gullywhump in meeting Eli and Saul. Eli puts his knife down as everything becomes clear. The siblings, imbued with each other’s strength, can go their separate ways now. Abraham, who spoke so gleefully of the creature, finds himself vanquished by the Gullywhump.
Gullywhump is a heavy play, and it is also at times hard to decipher. Everett leaves ample room for interpretation. It is a compelling play, though, with its vivid imagery and poetic qualities. Roy’s direction keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. The scenes between Abraham and the Gullywhump are almost dream-like in their fluidity and intensity.
Harris is frightening in the role of Abraham. He appears on stage as a ghoul, and he floats like one too. The way the actor snaps his fingers and dances to his characters’ telling of the Gullywhump is unsettling. Rioux and Fullerton do well in their roles of estranged brothers. The brotherly conflict is tense. Gauthier breathes energy and a soft earnestness into the character of Abigail.
With Love, Josephine and Gullywhump ran as a double-bill August 1 – 3 at Memorial Hall.