Fair warning: This review is long.
This Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of donning a Hamilton Fringe ‘backer button’ and heading over to The Players’ Guild of Hamilton, Inc. to watch a performance of Kristi Boulton’s The Yellow Wallpaper - a play adapted from a short story that is beautiful, haunting and exceptionally written.
The play is much of the same.
I had the pleasure of seeing The Yellow Wallpaper in it’s debut in the Honours Performance Series at McMaster, years ago (I can’t remember exactly how long, but bear with me). The play I remembered was absolutely devastating. I honestly cannot think of a better word to describe it. The wall, a towering thing that intimidated, drew attention, moved was the centrepiece, surrounded by magnificent actors who either revered or ignored it - and it tore apart any preconceived notions I had about what theatrecould - no, should- be.
I constantly told people - as recently as a few months ago - that this show was one of the best I had ever seen in Hamilton. It made me feel things that I had never considered, and it made me rethink my opinions on a lot of things - mainly, motherhood and ‘wellness,’ mental or otherwise.
Now, by this point you’re probably intrigued. As you should be. And frankly, the show is moving on a lot of levels. But what is it about?
A new mother, Charlotte (played by Hanah Itner) is taken to a country home by her husband John (Michael Patricelli) and her brother-in-law Henry (Nick Kozij) to try to rid her of her illness - frequently referred to in the show as her nerves. Her nerves are never really defined, as far as I can tell. She’s not feeling motherly (which I think could be something of a precursor to postpartum depression) and she’s a bit skittish. The men - who are also physicians - accuse her of having an over-active imagination (fair, for a woman who is a professional author, according to dialogue, throughout).
The has many scenes with Charlotte writing in a journal that she takes pains to keep hidden. Itner does an excellent job maintaining an air of nervousness (at being caught writing) and makes the audience feel for her almost immediately; she’s being held captive. Her captivity has moments of refrain, thanks to Rachel (Kristi Boulton) who is her sister-in-law and friend.
Rachel is a woman who hides a lot of her pain; there’s an allusion to her not being able to have children herself, and a moment of domestic violence that the audience is privvy to. Personally, I think these moments are too brief; they don’t give the audience enough time to really process why this woman is the way she is. It almost feels, in some sense, that they’re brushed over - something I didn’t feel was as true with the actress I saw in this role, previously - while Boulton had excellent comedic timing in this role, the more serious moments were lacking depth - a shame, because in my opinion they could have added quite a lot to the character.
Regardless, Rachel is an ally to Charlotte, for the majority of the piece - unlike the maid, Jennie (Claudia Spadafora), who seems to be making a feeble attempt for John’s affections. This is another moment that came across as weak, for me. I’ve seen Spadafora in other shows, and felt that she was much more believable. It’s unfortunate, because there are moments where Jennie shines - and moments where it seems she’s making so much of an effort to seem sexy that her cleverness is lost somewhere backstage.
It’s much of the same with Henry - who delivered one of my favourite lines of the show - there are moments when it seemed like he was reading lines instead of acting them. I’m not sure, as of now, whether this is a comment on the directing or the acting - or a combination of both. Kozij had excellent presence, though. His role as a villain is well done - we do hate him by the end. But in the same way that I commented on how there could have been more depth in Rachel’s strugglesome moments, I’d have liked to see more from Henry as the aggressor in their relationship. There should have been more build in silent interactions that led to the intense place that the audience found themselves in.
John, the husband who thinks he’s doing good and soon after realizes he’s hurting his wife, is an odd character. Patricelli does a fine job of making him simultaneously a victim and a villain. In the moments we have of a genuine John - worried about his wife, questioning the scientific method of treatment - Patricelli makes us love him. And then, just as fast, when he says something about not sleeping next to Charlotte because her nerves make him uncomfortable - every person in the audience feels the need to cringe, wondering how someone could be so callous when their significant other begs them to stay.
Overall, though, all of these characters sort of paled, in comparison to the Woman in the Paper (Sarah Granger) and Charlotte. Itner did such a great job showcasing the decline into her character’s instability - and Granger’s facial expressions were absolutely spot on; she was able to give so much in a quirk of an eyebrow that the silence of her character wasn’t even an issue. But the best thing about either of them as actors was their interaction. It’s obvious that Itner and Granger worked hard on the relationship between their characters. There were moments of frantic interaction, but more notably there were almost mother-daughter moments, where Granger’s yellow woman cradled Itner to her, silently telling her that things would be okay and that she could almost make it all better. It was a joy to watch the two of them interact - and the closing tableau was heart wrenching for a variety of reasons - but I won’t give it away, because the ending is definitely surprising.
Technically, the performance I saw of the show was flawed. The loop of the sound was distracting because it didn’t quite line up. The wall was less impressive in height (versus the first time I saw the show) and I feel that really took away from the effect. The costuming was sensible, for the most part - but unfinished sleeves and shirts that felt like the wrong time period took away from that, too. The furniture was perfect for the run-down cottage home, but should still have looked finished - in the sense that they had a single coat of paint on parts instead of two and then sanded down. Overall, the production seemed technically unfinished, which is of course one of the downsides of a festival like Fringe.
Overall, I thought the show was great. It was different than the version I watched at Robinson Memorial years ago, but It was still great. It made me think, and more importantly it made me want to talk about theatre - and isn’t that the point?
The Yellow Wallpaper has three more performances:
Thu July 24th 9PM
Fri July 25th 7PM
Sat July 26th 2PM
at The Players’ Guild of Hamilton, Inc.
80 Queen Street South, Hamilton, Ontario L8P3R8