Indie com­pany weaves a smart, com­plex show

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - KAREN FRICKER THE­ATRE CRITIC

The Queen’s Con­juror (out of 4) Writ­ten by Joshua Browne and Alec Toller, di­rected by Toller. Un­til Nov. 20 at the At­tic Arts Hub, 1402 Queen St. E. Cir­clesnake.com A new play about alchemy and wifeswap­ping in the 16th cen­tury, per­formed in an at­tic above a Les­lieville pizze­ria: God bless the Toronto indie the­atre scene.

Fac­tor in the method by which Cir­clesnake Pro­duc­tions makes its shows and things get even more in­trigu­ing.

The com­pany works through longterm group im­pro­vi­sa­tion, striv­ing to merge the for­mal lan­guages of the­atre and cinema.

This has led to some im­prob­a­ble cre­ative in­ter­sec­tions, such as their award-win­ning Dark Mat­ter, which reimag­ined Joseph Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness on a space­ship.

The cinema piece ap­pears to have taken some­what of a back seat to his­tor­i­cal re­search with this lat­est out­ing, which ex­plores the world of John Dee, a real-life fig­ure who was a trusted ad­viser to Queen El­iz­a­beth I, but never — and this is one of the prob­lems the play spins around — won her of­fi­cial pa­tron­age.

Dee was a math­e­ma­ti­cian and as­tronomer whose mélange of in­ter­ests would be con­sid­ered a bit woowoo these days.

But back then, look­ing to the stars for prophecy and be­liev­ing in the ca­pac­ity of spir­its to speak di­rectly to hu­mans were widely ac­cepted prac­tices.

The fo­cus of the show is the in­ter­per­sonal; the re­la­tion­ships that shaped Dee’s life and work, in par­tic­u­lar in his lengthy (and again, re­al­life) col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ed­ward Tal­bot, who claimed the gift of scry­ing — see­ing vi­sions — that Dee lacked, but may also have been a char­la­tan.

The play imag­ines a multi-year pe­riod in which Tal­bot (Joshua Browne) lives with Dee (Tim Walker) and Dee’s wife, Jane (Sochi Fried), and the three try to un­der­stand the prophecy that lies in a new star whose ap­pear­ance in the heav- ens has the Queen (Khadi­jah Roberts-Ab­dul­lah) rat­tled.

The play’s first ex­change is be­tween Tal­bot and one of the voices that speaks to him, Uriel (John Fray), the name of an ar­changel in the He­brew tra­di­tion.

So Tal­bot’s voices are real to him, but Fray plays Uriel as a men­ac­ing fig­ure. One of the cen­tral ques­tions the play works through is the value and ethics of scry­ing, which causes Tal­bot ex­treme duress with echoes of con­tem­po­rary tor­ture.

An­other con­cern is the place of women: Jane and John Dee are in­tel­lec­tual part­ners, but she gets side­lined from the work of prophecy along with Tal­bot’s wife, Joanna (Roberts-Ab­dul­lah), for rea­sons that ini­tially seem a bit con­trived but de­velop into one of the play’s rich­est seams.

A scene where the Re­nais­sance meets The Big Chill is gor­geously staged by direc­tor Alec Toller: a non­lit­eral de­pic­tion of phys­i­cal and psy­chic in­ti­macy that ad­vances the play’s com­plex in­ter­weav­ing of re­la­tion­ships.

Speak­ing of gor­geous, the or­nate cos­tumes, lent to the com­pany by Kathryn Sher­win, do ef­fec­tive work in plung­ing the au­di­ence into the his­tor­i­cal pe­riod. Tech­ni­cal work by Erica-Maria Causi (sets), Steve Vargo (lights) and Andy Trithardt (sound) ex­ploit the at­mo­spheric po- ten­tial of the beamed, low-ceilinged At­tic Arts Hub.

Where the suc­cess of this pro­duc­tion be­gins and ends is with its per­form­ers and Toller, who gen­er­ated the ma­te­rial over sev­eral months; it was then shaped into a script by Toller and Browne, Cir­clesnake’s artis­tic direc­tor and artis­tic pro­ducer, re­spec­tively. Some au­di­ence mem­bers may grow im­pa­tient with the show, wish­ing for a more spe­cific fo­cus, but these cre­atives are clearly not in­ter­ested in easy an­swers, but rather in the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween be­lief sys­tems and hu­mans’ in­ner and outer lives.

Own­er­ship of the ma­te­rial is most ev­i­dent in Fried’s ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance as Jane: she ra­di­ates pres­ence and in­tel­li­gence. Browne and Walker are also very strong as Tal­bot and Dee, play­ing their an­guished and some­times an­gry ex­changes with con­vic­tion.

While Roberts-Ab­dul­lah is a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of sage and im­pe­ri­ous as the Queen, she plays Joanna some­what on the sur­face. There are still some lay­ers and dif­fer­ences, too, for Fray to dis­cover in and be­tween his two roles.

In the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val’s off-sea­son, those with an in­ter­est in the po­ten­tial of the­atre to ex­plore the early mod­ern pe­riod might want to check out this smart show.

JOHN GUNDY

Tim Walker, Joshua Brown and Sochi Fried in The Queen’s Con­juror, which ex­plores the world of John Dee, a real-life ad­viser to Queen El­iz­a­beth I.

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