THERE’S A LOT OF DIRT in Tableau d’Hôte’s production of Lion in the Streets, currently onstage at Mainline Theatre. For starters, the stage is made of dirt. Three hundred and six bags of soil were hauled in to fill the sandbox structure on which 19 actors perform. None of them wear shoes, and by the end of the play, their feet are filthy. Naturally, the dirt is more than literal. It evokes death — specifically, the death of Isobel, a Portuguese-Canadian girl who is abducted and murdered one day in Toronto. And it evokes the violence lying just beneath the surface of every human heart.
Written by acclaimed Canadian playwright Judith Thompson in 1990, Lion in the Streets is a dirty-realist drama that digs out elements of life that most of prefer hidden. At the play’s core is the murdered girl, played by an actual 10-year-old, Charley Hausknost, who is on stage in nearly every scene, observing and sometimes interacting with the people in her old neighbourhood as she tries to hunt down her killer.
The play is constructed like a chain with interlinking scenes of human cruelty. One character visits his dark impulses on another, who in turn visits his upon someone else. And so it goes. We observe this hellish pageant as little Isobel does, equally powerless to stop it. At least we have the comfort of being physically away from the dirt, sitting on chairs in the audience.
In the opening scene, director Mike Payette slips in the idea of lions, connecting them to human cruelty. When the neighbourhood kids tease Isobel for her accent, they get down on all fours, stalking and taunting her like a pack of animals. A neighbourhood mother, Sue intervenes, saving Isobel and chasing the tormentors away. But later that night at a neighbourhood dinner party, Sue faces tormenters of her own. When her husband announces he’s leaving her for a woman with whom he’s been having telephone sex, Sue performs a humiliating, public striptease in an attempt to woo him back.
Other acts of cruelty include a woman turning her back on a friend who’s just learned she has bone cancer, and a young man with ambiguous sexual leanings who caves in to peer pressure and rejects a friend he once adored.
The cast of Tableau d’Hôte are young actors dedicated to producing new and original works by emerging and established Canadian writers. This troupe has energy and ambition to spare. Véronique Gaudreau’s choreography deserves special mention for lightening and stylizing this piece. Casting a child to play Isobel was risky, but Charley Hausknost is wonderful and credible in the role, supported by strong performances from Catherine Lemieux (Sue) and Saro Saroyan (Michael), among others.
Lion in the Streets continues at Mainline Theatre, 3997 St. Laurent (just south of Duluth) until November 2. Prepare to get down and dirty.