REVIEW: Armadillos at Factory Theatre

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

Tough skin, soft belly: it makes sense Colleen Wagner has named her latest play after such a selectively vulnerable creature.

There are no literal armadillos onstage (which might have been a fair assumption, given the wealth of animal-centric plays we’ve seen in Toronto this season). Instead, it’s four humans, caught in a play-within-a-play based on the Greek myth of Thetis and Peleus, in an Armadillos that at times seems to beckon another draft. 

In the first act of Armadillos, we bear witness to an ancient tale of rape, incest, and betrayal. Zeus (Ryan Hollyman) is tortured by his indecent desires, yanked to the surface by 17-year-old Thetis (Mirabella Sundar Singh). Hera (Zorana Sadiq) hatches a plan with Peleus (Paolo Santalucia) to squirrel away the young girl in order to protect her from Zeus almighty.

The plan fails. The rape proceeds. The play-within-a-play — set up by a brief prologue in which we see the actors warm up — crashes to a halt, and with it the first act of Armadillos.

Aside from that prologue, there are a few giveaways that something’s not quite right in this first act — Hera wears an ill-fitting wig in an unlikely colour. Stagehands make awkward transitions between scenes. The artifice of the art of theatre floats above the events of the play-within-a-play; it’s almost as if Brecht himself is in the Factory Theatre Mainspace to point out that this first act isn’t real.

Which paves the way to the second half. Now, we’re backstage, meeting the actors and piecing together the circumstances of that strange and scathing opening act. Karmyne, who plays Thetis (Sundar Singh), is new to the cast — and she’s on the prowl for a post-show hookup, she says, showing Sofia, who plays Hera (Sadiq), a shortlist of possible Bumble suitors. Jay, who plays Zeus (Hollyman), is jumpy and uncomfortable around Sofia, while Dyrk, who plays Peleus (Santalucia), seems to be attracted to the play’s new hire.

There’s a lot to like in the meta-theatrical throes of Wagner’s script: seductive ambiguities left unresolved, for instance, as well as the feminist jabs at North American colloquialisms, and the thorny relationships made thornier by the walls the characters-within-characters place between themselves and the world around them. 

Director Jani Lauzon seems to have massaged the meta-theatrical, nesting-doll-style structure of Wagner’s script to the top of the production — perhaps even too much, creating what feels like too hard a shell around Wagner’s meaty commentary about gender at the centre of the play — but Lauzon has nonetheless found some lovely moments of chemistry betwixt her small-yet-mighty cast, headed sharply by Sundar Singh and Hollyman. 

For me, this is a play which, despite this fully staged production, seems to anticipate a next draft — it knows exactly what it wants to talk about, but it feels as of yet unsure where all the building blocks go. Some interactions in the second act crunch against the given circumstances (we’re joining a touring theatre troupe mid-tour and yet they barely seem to know one another — why?), and beyond Trevor Schwellnus’ crinkling set, the plastic quality to the play-within-a-play doesn’t always seem intentional. I wonder if there might be room to further polish Wagner’s vital ideas on feminism and interpersonal relations between genders, and connect those arguments more complexly to the characters on both sides of the metatheatrical divide. There’s a pearl of a play embedded within Armadillos’ casing, and I hope to see it harvested in the future.

Armadillos runs at Factory Theatre through June 24. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.