Friday, March 9, 2012


Special to TorSun
09 MAR 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Nicole Underhay, Rick Roberts

In revisiting Charles Perrault’s horrific folk tale Bluebeard, playwright Carole Frechette unearths much of the same knowledge that many other dramatic archeologists have already discovered in previous digs. But finally it’s not so much what she unearths as what she does with it. For, in a world filled with senseless violence, Frechette has recognized that it is not so much the notion that old Bluebeard kept the bodies of his murdered wives in a single locked room that holds people spellbound as it is the mere existence of that single mysterious room, full of forbidden secrets.

In a metaphorical sense, at least, our world is filled with people who keep their deepest, darkest secrets under lock and key, in a room marked “No Trespassing!” And in THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, which opened at the Tarragon earlier this week, Frechette sets out to explore just what such a room might hold in this very modern world, far removed from the feudal days of Bluebeard and his ilk.

In an elegantly poetic translation from Frechette’s native French by John Murrell, THE SMALL ROOM... tells the story of the beautiful but flawed Grace (Nicole Underhay), swept up in a whirlwind romance with a fabulously wealthy man. The object of her affection however, is no bearded monster, but rather a modern day Mitt Romney clone (Rick Roberts) — wonderfully smooth of tongue, expertly but carelessly coiffed and finely tailored — in the process.

Ensconced in Henry’s sprawling 28-room mansion after their marriage, cast as the ultimate fashionable accessory, Grace is given the run of the place, save for the small room at the top of the stairs, where she must never, ever trespass, according to the dictates of her mysterious husband. And of course, the minute Henry is called away, Grace finds herself standing in front of the door to that room, arguing with her conscience, which speaks in the voice of her romantically pragmatic mother (the always impressive Sarah Dodd) and her tomboy sister, Anne (another fine turn by Claire Calnan). Despite her family’s best advice, imagined though it may be, Grace cracks open the door and enters forbidden territory.

What she discovers is not the bodies of Henry’s ex-wives, but rather the broken body of a mysterious man who she tries to help. And of course, she is caught red-handed when Henry returns, and while he is outraged that his privacy has been invaded and his sanctum violated, he nonetheless denies all knowledge of  and even the existence of the man who Grace has found. While Henry begs her to pretend that she has ever been in the room, Grace persists, leading them both to a deeper understanding of each other and the role such a sealed-off “room” can play in a relationship.

On a richly stark and minimalist stage created by Astrid Janson, and given a high-gloss sheen by Bonnie Beecher’s lighting, director Weyni Mengesha brings her cast of thoroughbreds together in such a way as to milk maximum tension and compassion from Frechette’s tale, using the insinuating subtlety of Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design to maximum effect.

And while she makes the most of accomplished performers like Roberts, Dodd and Calnan, it is in Underhay’s utterly compelling transformation, as she moves deftly from Hitchcock cliché to modern heroine, that Mengesha scores her greatest triumph. In the face of such finely-orchestrated performances, it is finally small wonder that Raquel Duffy’s turn as the mysterious maid, Jenny, all but disappears, easily dismissed as the kind of dramatic over-gilding that can occasionally overtake even the finest playwrights.

By turns tense, thought-provoking and downright bewildering, THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS definitely bears a bit of exploration, regardless of who tells you not to bother. 

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