The Phoenix Theatre’s latest production, Lion in the Streets by Judith Thompson, boasts an all-student cast, with many in the crew as well. Opening night had some empty seats, but drew a solid crowd—a good mix of students and community members.
Thompson is a celebrated Canadian playwright based in Toronto, where Lion in the Streets (1990) takes place. The protagonist is nine-year-old Isobel, a Portuguese immigrant wandering her neighbourhood, not realizing she is dead. It is then revealed that she was murdered 17 years ago, and must find her killer to gain redemption and peace.
Lindsay Curl’s Isobel immediately wins the audience over. She’s sad and confused, but funny and full of conviction, which is so darn charming that you have to love her. As Isobel walks the streets, scenes unfold.
Each of the other seven cast members play multiple roles, giving them an opportunity to show off their acting chops. Extensive monologues reveal the connections between scenes, and Thompson pushes characters to extremes, which is surely fun for the actors. Laura (Zoë Wessler) is a mom obsessed with eradicating sugar from her children’s diets, and Sue (Sarah Cashin) angrily attacks her husband’s mistress, then strips off her tracksuit for him.
The physicality and choreography of the show serves it well. The stage combat is impressive. However, the interpretive use of cast members dressed in black, representing abstract concepts and inanimate objects, sometimes falls short, the intention murky.
The same goes for the digitally projected backdrops, which at many moments seem unnecessary. But, one place they work to great effect is a scene where Edward (Sean Dyer) describes drowning, and the blue backdrop combines with conceptual sound and lighting to create a lovely sensory experience.
The female roles really shine. Act Two features standout performances by Arielle Permack as Scarlett, a woman with cerebral palsy, and Wessler as a journalist interrogating her. The intense dialogue colludes with excellent direction from Conrad Alexandrowicz. The two women sit across from each other with small breaks of heightened action, including an imagined dance sequence and a physical fight. Packed with the nuanced dysfunction and possibility that defines Thompson’s script, it is the most memorable part of the show.
Lion In the Streets runs at the Phoenix Theatre until Feb. 21. Visit finearts.uvic.ca for more information.