BWW Review: History, Music And Emotion Collide in AUDIBLE SONGS FROM ROCKWOOD
Simone Schmidt's AUDIBLE SONGS FROM ROCKWOOD receives its first staging for theatre at this years' SummerWorks festival. The song-cycle is based on the album of the same title by Schmidt's band Fiver and explores the cases of several people who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881. Although it would be easy to take advantage of the source material and lean into shock and spectacle, Schmidt takes care to respect the stories of the women and in turn has created a moving, educational, and memorable experience for audiences.
The theatrical staging of this production works incredibly well with the source material under director Frank Cox-O'Connell. In a little more than an hour, Schmidt guides the audience through her research process and provides insight into the cases that inspired songs. There's a great balance between spoken word and song, with Schmidt accompanying herself on the guitar with support from Laura Bates (fiddle) and Carlie Honell (bass) on several pieces.
Schmidt's musical background shines through in her performances, and she carries herself simply but effectively. Her rich voice packs plenty of emotion into the music, which is largely based on individual experiences, including those of the women who were forced to live in the stables during the asylum's construction, a woman who was stuck in the asylum for 30 years longer than needed because her family never came back for her, and a girl whose father fed her lye and sent her to Rockwood after she fell in love and became pregnant. Names are rarely given and backstories are kept simple to allow for more detailed song lyrics, which are presented nicely by Schmidt, Bates and Honell.
This first staged production of AUDIBLE SONGS features a simple but highly effective set (set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle) in which large metal frames are arranged in a semi circle onstage. Schmidt, Bates and Honell utilize the frames as a way to separate between past and present, and a pile of case files in the corner of two connecting frames serves as a reminder of the restrictions around the history that Schmidt waited months to access.
Lighting (Michelle Tracey) is poignant throughout as cool blue lights set the tone for sterile environments, like the review room at a university that houses the original Rockwood Asylum records. In one song about a woman incarcerated for protecting her property, the stage was kept dark aside from a single warm light on Schmidt's eyes, which suited the tone of the song and subject matter wonderfully.
AUDIBLE SONGS FROM ROCKWOOD is an innately fascinating show because of the history and tragedy that stems from Rockwood Asylum, but it's kept sincere and respectful through the efforts of its creative team and performers. At a time in our society where survivors of many atrocities are more likely to come forward and fight stigma, AUDIBLE SONGS does a great job of examining stories that cannot be told by their main characters in a fascinating, unapologetic, and emotional manner.
AUDIBLE SONGS FROM ROCKWOOD runs through August 18 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit http://summerworks.ca/artists/audible-songs-from-rockwood/
Main photo credit: Jeff Bierk