Tarragon Theatre's latest production turns the 15th century Perrault folktale, Bluebeard, into a comment on modern day morality.
Much like Dr. Seuss stories, Disney films, and early ’90s pop songs, old folktales are pieces of childhood that seem simple enough when you’re young, but become more complex as you grow older and recognizes hidden meanings in the text (usually sinister or sexual). Thanks to university English classes everywhere, it’s now a common belief that Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard is a metaphor for a young woman “opening the door” and discovering her sexuality. But a modern adaptation of the story by Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette, in a new translation by John Murrell on now at Tarragon Theatre, gives Grace’s entry into the forbidden room many other implications that aren’t so black and white.
The play begins kind of like a theatrical version of a Toronto Life article. Grace (Nicole Underhay), a beautiful young woman recently married to the wealthy Henry (Rick Roberts), receives lavish praise from her mother Joyce (Sarah Dodd) for being one of the select few to escape the confines of five-room homes to live in mansion with 28 culturally-themed rooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a greenhouse, and every other luxury she could want. Meanwhile, her do-gooder sister Anne (Claire Calnan) chastises Grace for her shallow relationship and for succumbing to the allure of becoming the one percent. Action flits from past to present as Grace gives in to her unrelenting curiosity regarding what lies behind the door of a small room at the top of a hidden flight of stairs—the one place Henry has demanded she not go within her new home—and faces Henry’s anger and Jenny the maid’s (Raquel Duffy) conspiratorial actions.
But unlike the original story, Fréchette doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to the room’s secret, operating on the notion that each character themselves has a dark room they are simultaneously terrified of and uncontrollably drawn to. Underhay does most of the heavy lifting, but the entire cast does an impressive job at portraying their inner conflicts within a diverse script that switches from absurd, to funny, to horrifying.
Under Weyni Mengesha’s directing, emotional performances from the cast are well-matched with a minimalist set design by Astrid Johnson that uses Bonnie Beecher’s precise lighting to turn the stage from a sprawling estate at one moment to a claustrophobic closet the next, and with Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design to get our hearts pumping even faster. Johnson’s costumes are interestingly monotone, a quiet shout-out to the one-dimensional characters of simpler stories that are now getting a deeper exploration.
The central question of Fréchette’s story arises when Grace, who regularly cries herself to sleep at night, is tasked with crying “real tears” inside the small room. The audience must decide where the true sorrow lies—in Grace’s loneliness, in Joyce’s worry, in Henry’s insecurity, in Jenny’s ambition, or in the global illness and injustices that Anne champions (interestingly enough, this brought to mind yesterday’s debate over the Kony 2012 campaign). Just like the small room itself, each audience member will see something different in the The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, and draw their own morals from the tale—a sign that this folktale has grown up indeed.