Welcome to the Dollhouse From Hell
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Welcome to the Dollhouse From Hell

In her new play Crawlspace, Karen Hines relives a Toronto first-home purchase worthy of a Midnight Madness movie.

Actress playwright Karen Hines recounts her disastrous entry into the Toronto housing market in Crawlspace   Photo by Gary Mulcahey

Actress-playwright Karen Hines recounts her disastrous entry into the Toronto housing market in Crawlspace. Photo by Gary Mulcahey.

Videofag (187 Augusta Avenue)
Runs to Sept. 29

It’s a tiny, one-bedroom, Victorian-era coach house set well back from the street in a hip, on-the-verge-of-gentrification Toronto neighbourhood. In real estate agent parlance, it would be “quaint” and “charming.” But to former owner Karen Hines, it’s “my little house of horrors.”

Imagine a building with shingles that aren’t actually affixed to the roof. And a back wall that suddenly collapses into the neighbour’s yard like a blind drunk on New Year’s Eve. And we haven’t even mentioned the unidentified animal carcass rotting pungently under the floorboards. The only thing missing was a poltergeist.

Almost a decade after she bought it, Hines still shudders as she recalls the dream house that turned into a nightmare, sucking up her life savings and leaving the normally angelic-natured performer-playwright with homicidal feelings about realtors, house inspectors, and DIY home renovators. “It’s a pretty repellent story to crawl inside of again,” she says over the phone with audible disgust. And yet that’s what she’s bravely doing, for the sake of theatre, with her new solo show, Crawlspace, opening this Friday.

The play, being aptly staged in the equally tiny (if somewhat more stable) Videofag venue, is a black comedy that revisits Hines’s annus horribilis of 2006, when she purchased what she thought was a wise investment in a certain West End hipster enclave that shall remain nameless. (For legal reasons, Hines doesn’t want to get too specific about details.)

As a peripatetic artist, dividing her time between theatre projects and film and television work, Hines thought finally owning her own home would give her more security. “In my imagination, I would be able to rent this place out and travel around,” she says. “I thought it would allow me to live the artist’s life more freely.” And the cute little detached house, newly renovated and painted a sunny lemon yellow, seemed a perfect match for the petite, doll-faced actress known for co-starring in Ken Finkleman’s cult-hit TV series The Newsroom and creating the warped-but-winsome girl-clown Pochsy.

No sooner had she moved in, however, when Hines discovered that behind her dollhouse’s shiny façade of bamboo floors and stainless-steel appliances lurked shoddy, dangerous workmanship and a legacy of raccoon habitation. Her plans quickly changed from renting it out to trying to sell it again as soon as possible—only to discover part of the house’s back addition was illegally parked on a neighbour’s land and trying to resell the property meant tangling with a Gordian knot of red tape.

It was a classic case of “buyer beware,” although Hines thought at the time of purchase that she was doing everything right. Just ask her now about the perils of half-assed inspections, out-of-date land surveys, blasé realtors, and buying a snow-covered house in the middle of winter. “I call myself an idiot in the show, because I was,” she says. “I just put my trust in these professionals who, in turn, counted on appearances.”

Suffice it to say, Hines did eventually manage to unload the place after two years—fully disclosing its many flaws to its new owner—and ended up moving to Calgary to live with her boyfriend, playwright-director Blake Brooker of the One Yellow Rabbit company. She purged herself of the house-buying blues by writing a witty account of her woes, “My Little House of Horrors,” for the Calgary Herald’s Swerve magazine in 2009, which earned her a National Magazine Award nomination. So why is she reliving the horror story again?

Bruce McCulloch made her do it.

Hines says the Kids in the Hall member, an old friend, kept insisting that she put her story onstage. “I didn’t really see the potential myself; I felt the details would be numbing in a theatrical context,” she says. “But Bruce raised the idea enough times that I began thinking about it and imagining how it could be a more visceral experience for the audience as opposed to me just telling the story.”

Enter Videofag, in the embodiment of canny curators William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill, who saw a description of the project on Hines’s website and suggested she premiere it at their Kensington Market arts space. Tailored to the intimate venue, the show has become an immersive experience for just 15 audience members at a time, who are welcomed into the theatre by Hines’s alter ego, Anonymous, as if it were her living room.

Turning the story into a play has also allowed Hines to vent more spleen than she could in the mainstream pages of Swerve—and indulge her penchant for macabre comedy. Not only is she the creator of Pochsy, she’s also the long-time director of those beloved “clowns of horror,” Mump and Smoot. (The duo, alias Michael Kennard and John Turner, have been involved in mounting this production.) “Swerve is a pretty wholesome magazine,” she notes. “The theatre piece is less wholesome. It’s darker and the vitriol comes out more in the show. But also it’s funnier.”

Aside from being a home-buyer’s cautionary tale, Crawlspace is a meditation on one of Hines’s pet themes: consumer culture. It’s a subject she’s satirized hilariously in the past, with her trio of Governor General’s Award-nominated solos, The Pochsy Plays. “A lot of the show is about how I became part of the consumer society I had always been on the outside of,” she says. “I got swallowed up by that game—and wasn’t very good at playing it!” she adds, laughing.

“But also, I’ve been thinking about young people a lot while I’ve been writing this,” Hines says. “In a way this show is meant for them—people in their twenties who don’t even begin to think about buying a house, who just can’t even imagine getting into a market where a tiny, two-storey semi-detached that needs a lot of fixing is $800,000. This show is about finding meaning in the meaninglessness of that pursuit, when it’s all about personal financial gain, rather than being focused on aspects of shelter, home, and comfort. I didn’t get into the market to buy and flip, I was in it to have somewhere safe to be that I could count on. The experience forced me to consider the meaning of property and ownership.”

Crawlspace is opening Videofag’s fourth and final season—Ellis and Tannahill are closing the space to much general regret—and performances have been selling out rapidly. Hines says there are also plans to perform it in Calgary, where she still lives with Brooker. Although she continues to jet between that city and Toronto, where she grew up (in Moore Park), Hines has lost her appetite for buying another property here. “But on the bright side,” she says cheerfully, “I’ve grown a lot closer to a number of Toronto friends who’ve let me stay in their homes.”