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Review: THE ONE at Freestanding Room

love and alienation, in the palm of your hand

Review: THE ONE at Freestanding Room

Miriam Cumming's THE ONE has been mounted by Hopegrown Productions. With direction and dramaturgy by Olivia Woods, it will run through June 19th at the Freestanding Room. While the show is happening at the same time as the St Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival, it's not officially a Fringe show.

Emily (Miriam Cummings) is one week away from her 30th birthday, and is looking for love. The text of the work lapses between dialogue addressed to followers on an unnamed social media website through Emily's phone, as well as interludes on love from Emily's grandmother (also portrayed by Miriam Cummings), and poetry about desire. Emily celebrates and bemoans the fraught landscape of modern dating, and takes viewers along on the process of her remote work team's launching of their groundbreaking - albeit borderline sinister - dating app.

The play is described as being about the ways technology shapes our desire, and how far the lovelorn are willing to go to find a stable, monogamous life partner. Love is the most commonplace form of magic, at once ubiquitous and elusive. I think everyone has theories about its nature and structure. How much of love is a feeling, and how much is a series of decisions? How much do we compromise before we are committing the cardinal sin of settling? How long do we hold out for perfection before we frame our standards as arrogance? THE ONE explores these questions with staggering scope for the play's short run time - which is a scant 50 minutes, but feels longer, in a good way.

The storytelling is clear, and at once elegant and artful - there is nothing over-explained, which I always read as a respectful gesture towards the intelligence of the audience. This, in turn, invites audience goodwill. I think this dialectic is the foundation of the audience-performer treaty of suspended disbelief. Cummings's masterful delivery is a delicious aid - she plays two characters (maybe three, if we count the speaker of the poetry) with clear delineation and a palpable emotionality. Emily is variably warm, insecure, playful, bold, and angry. She is a savvy, successful, professional woman in the male-dominated STEM field. She is a hungry, lonesome animal. She is sympathetic and relatable at every turn, even (especially!) when she's not acting in her own best interest.

I have very few critical things to say, as I enjoyed this play very much. As an arts professional with a great deal of respect for other arts professionals, I feel it's my moral duty to always offer at least one piece of critical feedback - I will mention that there is at least one extended sequence which establishes a great deal of plot-important information, but in which Emily almost exclusively addresses her phone, and there is too little dynamic engagement with the space to avoid the work dragging. This happens near the end of what felt, to me, like the second movement of the piece. This is maybe the only real flaw I could see, and it reads like a reminder of the human-ness of live theatre more than it does any strike against the work as a whole. Cummings is captivating - the most convincing actor I've had the pleasure to witness recently. I will defend to my death the superiority of small spaces for live theatre - the intimacy of the Freestanding Room offers Cummings the closeness to behave with a subtlety that I've been missing from almost every performance in a large space I've ever seen in the city. I was starting to become concerned that I was fundamentally misunderstanding a necessary rudiment of live theatre, that maybe subtlety was a depth I didn't get to plumb, that maybe my brain had been poisoned by close-ups of actors' faces in film and television. But here she is: Miriam Cummings. I knew I'd find her.

The small stage space is exquisitely crafted - evoking a lived-in urban loft space with rugs and crocheted set pieces, when it needs to, but also the ring light-and-pink glow of TikTok videos and video conferencing (thanks to standout lighting design by Tiffanie Boffa). It's bare-bones, and yet I am transported. Convinced. The set adapts as the show plumbs the darker depths of Emily's willful search for surrender, John Saigle's sound design doing the heavy lifting of implying the much larger world of the art. This world is parallel to ours, full of familiar forces which lead Emily's desire as it twists its way, screwlike, towards desperation. These forces include narrow definitions of youth, patriarchal structures that put an expiration date on women's desirability, and the way the demands of the body (our animal nature) are melded with tech (which is also an extension of our animal nature). It's a very slow, consistent burn for such a short show. I wondered if it would pay off - and then it did.

My overall impression was, perhaps ironically, a sense of the delicacy and organicness of life, and what makes it challenging, and what makes those challenges fair - like pleasure, and connection, and love. I've been in a stable relationship for over a decade. Once or twice, in there, I've thought about ending the relationship to see what else is out there, and then had to consider the reality of navigating capitalism alone as well as the fact that I would have to date again, what what that looks like: the bleak landscape of swiping, and disposability, and the Russian roulette of compatibility. In this context, my partnership never looks like it's worth abandoning. Yet abandonment is the human condition - all relationships end in heartbreak, or death. There but for the grace of God, I thought, leaving the show, running my thumb over my engagement ring. THE ONE made me want to kiss my fiancé. THE ONE made me want to call my exes. THE ONE made me want to throw my phone into the Fleuve. It made me want to shout out in joy, as I emerged onto the festival-crowded expanse of St Laurent boulevard, animated by life with all of its hardship and with the people searching for the things that will make those hardships feel fair.

THE ONE runs at The Freestanding Room through June 19th. Tickets can be purchased here. Please be aware that masks are required in the venue before, during, and after the performance, and that the Freestanding Room is located up a long staircase in an old building, which seriously limits its physical accessibility.

Show poster graphic by Marie Anne Louis-Charles.




From This Author - Tara McGowan-Ross

Tara McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi’kmaq multidisciplinary artist. She is the author of the poetry collections GIRTH and SCORPION SEASON (both INSOMNIAC PRESS), the host of Montreal's INDIGENOUS... (read more about this author)


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