BWW Review: Intriguing, Personal Storytelling Struggles to Ground Itself in WELCOME TO MY UNDERWORLD
WELCOME TO MY UNDERWORLD, directed by Judith Thompson and produced by RARE Theatre Company in partnership with Soulpepper, is an interesting anthology of human stories. Its diverse ensemble draws on personal experiences to explain their perspective on topics like mental health, transgender and LGBTQ+ community issues, and sexual abuse, among others.
While the deeply personal angle to storytelling allows for some emotional moments, it also ends up being a bit overwhelming. With a run time of about two hours, the play can feel overloaded at times which affects the narrative flow from piece to piece - although Willow's (Grace Thompson) Wake transitions between each story are engaging throughout. The ten-part storyline looks at the 10-year old's relationship with the world and her friend Mara, and Thompson successfully switches between the two different roles while maintaining their unique characteristics throughout the play.
The variety of stories, often extremely different in subject matter, are connected by the effect each has on its playwright. Among the works (nine in total, with two story lines returning for multiple parts), one of the standouts is Jeddahwi (Maddie Bautista), which is a look into the life of a Saudi-Arabian-born Filipina girl. Beginning in a classroom where young girls are taught about puberty by a comedic (if not stereotypical) Bautista, she shifts between the educator and student wonderfully. Bautista's piece is a primary example of comedy versus tragedy, and when the emotional component of the piece rolls in it's all the more heartbreaking.
In The Witch Comes Out, (Carolyn Hetherington) the story of an elderly woman in the hospital after a surgery is gripping, with Hetherington's voice bringing all the fear and paranoia required to convey the specific type of trauma experienced by many older patients during recovery. There is also a great balance of dark humour and attitude in Ghost Stories (Nikoletta Erdelyi), which explores Erdelyi's relationship with her Roma ancestry. Erdelyi uses a wheelchair, which also allows for an insightful look into her familial, romantic, and work relationships.
Because of the frequent shift from character to character, lighting (design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher) is a key component to transitioning quickly, although in Vows (Simone Dalton) the overall brightness of the scene makes the back and forth between characters less pronounced - relying on her accent and dialogue work to really differentiate who's speaking. The set (design by Brett Haynes) is kept simple, with actors using the wing-back chair, swing, and picnic table well throughout the play. The inclusion of a large painted tree also helps to visually enforce the connection between all stories in a subtle yet effective manner. Composition and sound design (Olivia Shortt) was unique, placing Shortt just offstage with a saxophone. Her ability to perform musical pieces added to transitions between the stories, and there were a number of creative sound effects produced from the instrument.
WELCOME TO MY UNDERWORLD is a deeply personal look into a talented ensembles' experiences and relationships with themselves, their families and the world at large. However, the long running time and weight of each piece makes for heavy viewing, which sometimes makes it difficult to really engage with each actor and their story. Regardless, it's an urgent and insightful look into many communities that receive minimal attention in mainstream media, making this work a great step towards more diverse and inclusive storytelling.
WELCOME TO MY UNDERWORLD runs through May 25 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/welcome-to-my-underworld/6884
Main image credit: Sophia Thompson-Campbell