A Woman Is a Secret: No Great Mystery, But Pleasing to Tell
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A Woman Is a Secret: No Great Mystery, But Pleasing to Tell

Three local theatre companies premiere new work (though not quite a new play) by renowned playwright John Patrick Shanley.

Noah Reid, Anna Hardwick, and Karen Knox in the opening scene of A Woman Is A Secret  Photo by John Gundy

Noah Reid, Anna Hardwick, and Karen Knox in the opening scene of A Woman Is a Secret. Photo by John Gundy.

A Woman Is a Secret
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
Runs until April 5
4 Stars

Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Pulitzer-winning playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley premiered his last play, Outside Mullingar, on Broadway. So how did three Toronto companies―Ripjaw Productions, Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, and Storefront Theatre―snag his latest work for a world premiere at the Theatre Centre on Queen Street West?

Actress and co-producer Anna Hardwick first began a correspondence with Shanley when she starred in a 2010 Toronto production of his play Where’s My Money?. They met in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox when Shanley attended a Norman Jewison retrospective (that included Shanley’s Moonstruck), and Hardwick charmed Shanley so during his visit that he agreed to give her company Ripjaw Productions the six unproduced scenes he’d written in conjunction with the one that developed into Outside Mullingar.

That’s an important note to consider in appreciating A Woman Is a Secret; that it’s a collection of scenes, or short playlets, loosely linked thematically by Shanley’s ruminations on love and life between men and women. (Though not all of the scenes are between lovers, they are all opposite-sex pairings.) The scenes are linked and interspersed pleasingly by Matthew Barber singing, with occasional support from the cast, pop standards selected by Shanley (“You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You”, for example), similar to Henri Fabergé’s balladeer role in All Our Happy Days Are Stupid.

The inclusion of Barber, plus some subtle sound design by Brian Kenny, and a clever fill of the large Theatre Centre stage by set & costume designer Hanna Puley, goes a long way towards dressing up what’s essentially a theatrical scene study presentation. Of course, this sort of thing―crisp dialogue between men and women―has been a Shanley forte since early in his career; local Toronto companies of late have scored with revivals of Savage in Limbo and other early Shanley plays. Woman boasts an eclectic cast, too, of veterans like Tony Nappo and Martha Burns, plus rising stars like Karen Knox and Noah Reid (who’ll star in ABC’s new sitcom Kevin From Work this summer), all of whom were obviously keen to premiere new work by Shanley.

The most effective scenes in the show, to our mind, were the most stylized, when director Andrew Shaver pushed the realism envelope. Opener “French Waitress”, with a dining couple played by Reid and Knox, who are respectively annoyed and bemused by their languid server (Hardwick), took some interesting twists. And one could have heard a pin drop during “Tiny Tragedy”, an anthropomorphic seduction scene between Trent Pardy and Molly Flood that crackled with sexual tension. In comparison, some of the scenes in act two seemed somewhat pedestrian, as the dynamic of directionless men jumpstarted by vital women became repetitive, though Knox was still engaging as a forthright former model, Burns delightful as a literal manic pixie dream girl, and Anand Rajaram hilarious, with a bravura physical turn involving the centre table the couples all share at the centre stage.

The effectiveness of the scenes may vary, but there’s no denying that the premiere is a coup for the three tiny indie companies. Shanley attended the show over the weekend and, interviewed on Q, said he’d been “charmed” by the production. We hope he was sufficiently charmed that next time he’ll premiere a fully developed play here in Toronto, but this theatrical anthology is still a welcome gift.