Dying Hard is Hard to Watch but Worth the Effort
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Dying Hard is Hard to Watch but Worth the Effort

Mikaela Dyke's acclaimed verbatim play Dying Hard brings touching stories from rural Newfoundland to the big city of Toronto. And it's about time.

Mikaela Dyke has made a mainland success out of her coastal Fringe show. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Dying Hard
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
March 13 to 18, Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m.
$20 to $25

The only thing hotter than the weather right now in Toronto seems to be documentary theatre. Okay, that’s a stretch, but still, it’s experiencing quite a moment in the spotlight.

Last season, The Middle Place blew audiences away with a raw glimpse of the life of teens and workers in a Rexdale youth shelter at both Theatre Passe-Muraille and Canadian Stage. This summer, You Should Have Stayed Home chronicled Tommy Taylor’s 48 hours in captivity during the G20. More recently, Crows Theatre’s Seeds received rave reviews for its creative use of multimedia, original texts, and interview excerpts to explore the Percy Schmeiser/Monsanto Corporation controversy. Even Toronto’s emerging theatre artists are hooking onto the trend, with this year’s Paprika Festival highlight as Rosamund Small’s verbatim piece Performing Occupy, taken directly from the Occupy Toronto camp.

Clearly, Toronto has an appetite for theatre drenched in the drama of everyday life—which makes it perfect timing for Mikaela Dyke to bring her Fringe show Dying Hard to our city. Acclaimed all the way from St. John’ to Halifax to Ottawa to Winnipeg to Calgary, Dyke’s verbatim one-woman show is worth the wait.

Taken from anthropologist Elliott Leyton’s 1975 book of the same name, the play draws on interviews, recreated verbatim, with several residents of the small town of St. Lawrence, on the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland. From 1933 until 1978, many of the men of St. Lawrence worked in two nearby fluorspar mines which, years later, resulted in a community that was dying of silicosis and lung cancer from the mines’ poor working conditions. In Dying Hard, Dyke portrays six real-life characters affected by the mines, in monologues that are both heartbreaking and hilarious in their brutal honesty.

With a background in improv and comedy, the dark subject matter of Dying Hard might seem to be foreign ground for Dyke. But on the contrary, her past experience (and lack of formal training) allows her to fully commit to each character, and throw herself into them with astounding physicality and vocal work (and the help of director Dahlia Katz). Dyke is an open book onstage, disarmingly neutral as she opens the show by explaining the situation within St. Lawrence and introduces each character by name, before hypnotically transforming into each one of them by picking up a costume piece or prop. She handles the heavy East Coast brogue like a seasoned Stratford veteran would attack Shakespearean language, and though it’s jarring at first, you soon break through the accent’s muffled grunts and appreciate the nuanced affectations that Dyke expertly incorporates. With David DeGrow’s lighting that sets Dyke inside a dim bedroom or red-hued bar, the Tarragon Extraspace is transformed into rural Newfoundland in a blink.

Her performance is a means to an admirable end, letting the voices of the interview subjects really shine through. The four men she depicts, ranging in age and degree of health, all demonstrate a level of bravado and an “it could be worse” attitude that made us respect their courage, but left us enraged at their circumstances. The real pain comes through in the two female characters, one the wife of an ill man and the other a widow who lost her husband to disease. Both are shouldering the burden of illness, whether by having to act as both matriarch and patriarch in their households, or simply having to live on without the loves of their lives.

Dyke has said that the most frustrating part of these stories is that there is no one to take the blame—at the time, nobody knew any better. Luckily, there’s far more awareness now about the health risks of working in a mine. Luckier still, there are performers like Dyke to make sure stories like these aren’t forgotten.

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