Haley McGee’s precocious and troubled character in Oh My Irma. Photo by Aviva Armour-Ostroff.
“It’s my first time doing this out loud,” apologizes Haley McGee’s oddly attired character to her entranced audience, early on in her tour de force solo show Oh My Irma, as she begins a stream of consciousness poem, a brief sidetrack from the story of one very strange day in a young woman’s life. The apology is unnecessary: the conflicted and idiosyncratic narrator is many things, but the one gift she shares with McGee is that both are born storytellers.
Mind you, it’s not a given that McGee’s “Mission Bird”—how her unnamed young anti-heroine occasionally refers to herself—is being entirely truthful with us. It is true that she owns up to some very embarrassing, sordid, and darkly humourous behaviour: vandalism, breaking and entering, and (we won’t spoil it) much worse. In the moments before her story begins, she’s experienced a life-altering trauma which partially explains (if not excuses) her jumbled mental process, and it’s in this shell-shocked, emotionally turbulent state that her story comes rushing out of her.
It’s doing the play, which unfolds elliptically, a bit of a disservice to give it a concise plot summary, but in a nutshell: “her” Irma is a neglectful mother who can’t handle loud noises and exuberance, and cuts herself to relieve stress. Our heroine’s mission becomes clear to her when she finds a bloodstained tuxedo shirt with a man’s initials on it; she leaves home to track this man down, and ask him how he knew her Irma.
The mission this bird is on started as a five-minute piece in Theatre Passe Muraille’s Crapshoot cabaret series, produced by the emerging artist collective The Elephants in the Room. McGee has said that the first five minutes of the current show are essentially what that first audience saw, and it’s all grown from that introduction. Subsequent returns to the Crapshoot series with expanded monologues eventually lead to this full one-act play, which she’s taken on tour to Edmonton and elsewhere. If, as McGee says, Mission Bird sprung from her head fully formed, the valuable work she’s done since (in tandem with director Alisa Palmer) has been in constructing a fascinating story, one that gives her free reign to explore an unique character and push her to extremes.
And unique she certainly is. McGee sustains her protagonist’s heightened emotional state with nuanced breath control: Mission Bird gulps, and gasps, and often seems on the verge of expelling more than just the lyrical verbiage of an exceptionally well read but socially inept shut-in.
Visually, the stark Passe Muraille Backspace, with its stage painted white, is uncluttered; the show’s captivating images stem from McGee’s performance. Some subtle sound work bolsters the show—including the sound effect of a portly dog’s lapping at a cringe-inducing time—and deceptively simple lighting helps McGee emblazon images into our minds, like a soundless scream delivered up a shaft of light along the back wall.
But the great discovery here is McGee’s deft physicality, clever composition, and above all, her ruthlessly inquisitive and impulse-driven Mission Bird. Exquisitely poetic in one moment, babbling in the next, at turns wisecracking and aggressive, or bereaved and vulnerable, this is a young woman whose story McGee would be well advised to continue exploring—and that audiences who can handle some black humour and squirm-inducing verbal imagery should get acquainted with.
Oh My Irma runs Tuesdays–Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday 2 p.m. matinees, until January 29 at Theatre Passe Muraille; visit the Arts Box Office to book tickets.