Indie company weaves a smart, complex show
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.
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.