Frank Cox-O’Connell, Ryan Hollyman, Natasha Greenblatt, and Maev Beaty. Photo by Chris Gallow.
Theatrefront has taken us through two centuries of nail-biting suspense with the first three parts of their ambitious serial project, The Mill. Conceived of by Daryl Cloran and Matthew MacFadzean, the series began with a mandate to revitalize the subject of Canadian history by interpreting our haunted past as a ghost story.
Each installation explores a different period in the story of a remote mill in Eastern Ontario that is far more than it appears. Part 1: Now We Are Brody finds the mill abandoned in 1854, avoided by a fearful and guilt-ridden townspeople and haunted by a waifish child named Lyca. Written by MacFadzean and directed by Cloran, the play embraces the more visceral aspects of the horror genre, with bloody screams and astounding wirework.
The duo handed off the reigns to writer Hannah Moscovitch and director Christian Berry for Part 2: The Huron Bride, which eschews the viscera in favour of more atmospheric chiaroscuro and haunting chills. Set twenty years earlier, in 1834, the second installation features a mill in the flush of industry—until the arrival of Lyca as a “foundling child” with a strange connection to the building. Even in its heyday the mill already boasts a docket of tragic secrets, though to trace the true roots we need to skip back a few more generations.
Written by Tara Beagan and directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Part 3: The Woods winds all the way back to 1640 and takes place on the future site of the mill. In this folkloric chapter we find a lost French ethnographer taken in by a Wendat woman and her familiar daughter, the only remaining members of a tribe wiped out by Jesuit exploration. The tragic tale of love and betrayal that follows reveals the foundations for the mill’s twisted history.
The series returns—now with four Dora Awards under its collective belt—with Part 4: Ash, written by Damien Atkins and directed by Vikki Anderson. While the narrative had been previously digging itself deeper into the past, the fourth installation hurtles it unexpectedly into the vague future. A group of five children use the mill as protection against what we presume is an apocalyptic, post-society wasteland. It seems the mill is all they have ever known, though they are seemingly disquieted by their shelter. They struggle to remember their past while waiting for the return of an absent father.
Natasha Greenblatt and Frank Cox-O’Connell. Photo by Chris Gallow.
The roles are populated by the cast of previous productions, but where former shows saw them often playing the same character—or analogues thereof—these future versions are entirely new individuals. Ryan Hollyman is pure adolescent fury as the abrasive Fox, while Maev Beaty shadows him with needy obsequiousness. Michelle Monteith is the gentle, timid matron of the group as Bird, while Eric Goulem is the sullen eldest Bear. Of particular note is Frank Cox-O’Connell as the frenetic Rabbit, the group’s most insightful member while at the same time its most naive.
Moving unseen through the group while they careen through a melange of confusing adolescent feelings is a spectral Lyca, who takes a malevolent glee in pushing the refugees towards conflict. Natasha Greenblatt takes over as the vindictive ghost girl, replacing Holly Lewis’ ethereal presence with something far more primal. Greenblatt lopes across the set like an animal, her maniacal cackles hinting at the impact the centuries she’s spent trapped in the mill have had on her psyche.
The shift from the previous locales in the distant past to one with strong science fiction overtones is unfortunately jarring, and the story suffers a disconnect from the undertones of Canadiana that made its predecessors so fascinating. The magnified isolation of the Ontario wilderness on a desolate planet is keenly felt, but the hints of a history doomed to repeat itself are lost in an entirely new genre mythology. The question hangs as to why the story would rush past the opportunity to use a more contemporary setting, with such ripe “cabin in the woods” material on hand.
With that said, the wobbling orbit of the series’ narrative track is easily overlooked by the grace of the company’s usual outstanding performances, in addition to the design work that garnered such well-deserved awards. The mill interior crafted by set designer Gillian Gallow is so eerily realistic that upon exit one patron was heard to dare another to spend a night on the set—a dare refused with a shudder. Composer Richard Feren’s haunting music has set the perfect tone for each installation, giving the entire production a cinematic quality.
If The Mill has a shortcoming, it’s the daunting (and costly) matter of seeing four separate productions for the full experience. It can be easily argued that each production stands on its own chilling merits, but a full sweep is well worth the potentially pocket-draining investment. Ash plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until January 29, with each of the previous chapters receiving two performances in repertory over the period. See them all, if you dare.