Scratching Our Heads Over 6 Essential Questions

In her playwriting debut, author Priscila Uppal goes for poetry and atmosphere over coherency.

Mina James, Richard Zeppieri, Elizabeth Saunders, and Maggie Huculak. Photo by Joanna Aykol.

  • Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
    • March 12–30
  • $15–$42

Performance dates



Going into a play with no prior knowledge of the characters, plot, setting, or theatrical style can be a very liberating exercise—most of the time. However, for 6 Essential Questions, on now at Factory Theatre, that approach is highly discouraged.

The play is the theatrical debut of author-turned-playwright Priscila Uppal, and has been adapted from her acclaimed memoir Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother, which recounts a trip to Brazil during which she briefly reunited with the mother who’d abandoned her 20 years before. The play follows the same basic storyline, but that becomes clear only about halfway through the 90-minute performance. Uppal’s approach to playwriting appears to be heavy on the poetry and metaphor, and light on context and basic exposition. That can be fine, as long as the audience has a basic understanding of the world being explored, which sadly isn’t the case here.

On stage is a giant pile of garbage—and we’re not speaking metaphorically. Designer Victoria Wallace’s set is a soft, grey mass of trash resembling the contents of one thousand clothes dryer lint filters—out of which emerge Mother (Elizabeth Saunders), Grandmother (Maggie Huculak), and Dr. Garbage (Richard Zeppieri). The play’s protagonist, and Uppal’s stand-in, Renata (Mina James) stands on top of a tall stepladder in a lab coat, holding open a handbag that seems to be singing to her. The next moment, her head falls back and, according to Dr. Garbage’s narration, she’s in Brazil and face to face with her estranged family members (Dr. Garbage is apparently Mother’s brother, who may or may not be invisible). Renata, whose brow remains constantly furrowed for 90 minutes straight, tries to make sense of her surroundings and her extremely strange companions, who are busy doing things like joyfully describing what they like best about themselves, randomly falling asleep, and confessing their desire to die. Sometimes, they eat a Brazilian dish—and there’s a strangely long sequence describing the various tourist spots of the country. Somewhere along the way, Renata and her Mother start to gain some closure in their fraught relationship.

It’s certainly not the most out-there production to hit Toronto stages recently—not even close. But it’s definitely one of the more perplexing scripts in recent memory. And while it’s almost astounding that it’s on stage in this shape, the creative team don’t do it any favours. Director Leah Cherniak often adds to the confusion, drawing broad performances from the cast (although Maggie Huculak sometimes shines through the haziness of the script). It is impossible to sympathize with someone as obnoxious as Mother, or as pathetic and angry as Dr. Garbage (who for some reason keeps physically pushing his niece around the stage), or with a character as under-developed as Renata.

Uppal does succeed in creating a dreamlike atmosphere, but at a crucial cost. Lines like “Sometimes the future takes a nap in the past,” might look good on paper, but leave an audience without an anchor. A more appropriate line is one said by Renata near the end of the play: “I feel like I’m going insane.” Now that’s something we can understand.

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