BWW Review: PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE THEO FLEURY STORY at Centaur Theatre
Much like the famous NHLer he plays onstage, you can tell actor Shaun Smyth is working hard from the moment he steps onto the ice.
It's the opposite of effortless, but you appreciate Smyth's performance all the more for the sweat he's putting in as he carries this extraordinary one-man play to the finish line.
Smyth spends the entirety of the two-hour performance weaving, ducking, dodging and slap-shooting across a large expanse of synthetic ice.
But more important than all the expert footwork; he's busy telling a deeply compelling story.
Based on the book of the same name, Playing with Fire follows the true-to-life autobiographical memoir of Canadian hockey player Theo Fleury from his humble beginnings in Manitoba to a storied career that brought him a Stanley Cup win and an Olympic gold medal.
Written by Fleury's co-author Kirstie McLellan Day, the show is a co-production with Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon getting its Quebec premiere at the Centaur Theatre.
Despite the elaborate set - the faux skating rink takes up the entire stage - the play feels intimate.
Smyth is a highly-charged, emotional performer who masterfully moves between moments at breakneck speed.
The real Theo Fleury, active in the NHL from 1988 to 2006 and best known for his time playing with the Calgary Flames, lived a life of extremes.
After an incredible career during which he struggled repeatedly with addiction and depression, he famously spoke out about the sexual abuse he'd experienced as a teenager at the hands of his hockey coach and became an advocate for victims' services.
The play doesn't shy away from this chapter in Fleury's life, instead facing it head on and handling it with a moving combination of raw vulnerability and humour.
As the play progresses, Smyth recounts a lifetime of the highest highs - holding the 1989 Stanley Cup above his head in utter exaltation - and the lowest lows including the lifelong effects of his childhood abuse and the breakdown of several marriages.
During the first few minutes though, it's hard to pay attention to the dialogue because you can't help but be entranced by the way he moves on the synthetic ice.
Smyth practiced on that surface, which he compared in one interview to the consistency of skating through mud, for countless hours to achieve the grace and fluidity of motion one would expect from a star hockey player who was raised at the rink.
The end result is totally mesmerizing.
And while the show leans heavily on the use of space (synthetic ice, boards, two nets and a few stray pucks) the production design is actually quite simple.
There is just the right amount of special effects to make it feel magical, without taking away from the main event: Smyth's performance.
As you watch him sweat and spit and cry his way through more than two hours worth of pure monologue, all the while whizzing around across the glossy white surface, you begin to feel you're in the presence of greatness and it's a bit like witnessing a piece of Canadian history in your own backyard.
Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story is playing at the Centaur Theatre until Oct. 29.