Jordan Tannahill's funny, haunting new play focuses on the dark secrets of troubled suburban teens.
While other young artists can’t wait to flee the suburbs, Toronto playwright Jordan Tannahill embraces them. Like Arcade Fire, he finds dark inspiration in their dead shopping malls, quiet streets, and rambling fields. Concord Floral, his new play at the Theatre Centre, is set in Vaughan and takes its title from a long-abandoned greenhouse that serves as a teen-age hideout. It’s a haunting and surreal tale populated by talking animals and inanimate objects, as well as enough troubled kids to fill several S.E. Hinton novels.
The show, produced by Tannahill’s Suburban Beast company and presented by Why Not Theatre, is a greenhouse itself, stocked with budding young talent. The 10-member cast is made up entirely of adolescents and young adults from across the GTA. They turn in an array of impressive performances as a group of high-school students whose lives are overshadowed by an incident that occurred one night during a field party.
Memories of this disturbing occurrence resurface one evening when friends Nearly (Erum Khan) and Rosa (Jessica Munk), crossing the field to get their McFlurry fix at the local McDonald’s, decide to make a quick detour to Concord Floral and smoke a joint. Groping about for a lighter in the gloomy, dilapidated building, the two girls stumble upon what appear to be human remains.
What follows is a tense, spooky, but also frequently funny mystery that takes in both horror-movie tropes and classical allusions. One of the students is doing a school report on The Decameron, Boccaccio’s seminal 14th-century story collection, and Tannahill cannily riffs on its framing story, in which 10 young Florentines escape to a villa to avoid the Black Death. The plague that threatens Tannahill’s characters, however, is a symbolic manifestation of guilt, and his script touches on the very contemporary themes of bullying and peer pressure.
It’s his poetic treatment of the suburban environment, however, that takes the play well beyond afterschool-special territory. We hear stories from the kids, but also from other eloquent denizens of Concord Floral and the nearby field: a fox (Eartha Masek-Kelly), a bobolink (Troy Sarju), and most amusingly, a ratty old couch (Sahra Del) that has seen its share of furtive teens and burrowing rodents. The greenhouse, too, has a monologue, voiced by a charmingly deadpan Rashida Shaw, who doubles as the play’s narrator.
There are inevitable comparisons with Tannahill’s previous piece of suburban gothic, Post Eden, which was set in Richmond Hill and featured a soliloquizing dog. But this is a stronger and more focused play. And while Post Eden toggled uneasily between live performance and film, Concord Floral is pure, stripped-down theatre. Tannahill and co-directors Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner have staged the play on a large carpet of artificial turf to which plastic chairs are occasionally added, suggesting the two primary settings: the field and the school’s cafeteria. Kimberly Purtell’s typically expressive lighting does the rest of the scene-setting. And besides Boccaccio, the show pays homage to another classical source—Greek tragedy—with occasional choral sections.
It’s been a good year for Tannahill. In March, he received Tarragon Theatre’s Urjo Kareda Residency Grant, and currently he’s on the Governor General’s Award shortlist for his book of solo plays, Age of Minority. (The winners will be announced November 13.) On top of that, his sleeper-hit production of Sheila Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, seen last year (if you could get a ticket) at his tiny Videofag space in Kensington Market, will kick off Harbourfront’s 2015 World Stage season in February before having its New York premiere at venerable avant-garde venue The Kitchen. Concord Floral is also shaping up to be a hot ticket, and, with performances running only through Sunday, you’d better grab one now.