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REVIEW: Dana H. is an explosion of theatrical form and craft

iPhoto caption: Photo by John Lauener.
/By / Mar 20, 2024

“Lip sync for your life!” has reached a whole new level of meaning in the gorgeous production of Dana H. currently playing in the Factory Theatre mainspace, a presentation by Crow’s Theatre of a production created by the Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group, and Vineyard Theatre. (Try saying that five times fast!)

Written by star American playwright Lucas Hnath (who has another Toronto premiere in the pipeline this spring), Dana H. follows the harrowing true story of his mother’s abduction by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a troubled, dangerous man referred to as Jim in the play. In a flourish of stagecraft unparalleled by any other in recent memory, the story of Dana H. is told entirely by Dana Higginbotham herself – the woman onstage, an unnervingly precise Jordan Baker, lip-syncs along with the recording of an interview between Higginbotham and interviewer Steve Cosson, never once speaking out loud in her own voice.

It’s a chilling theatrical device, the dramaturgy of which could inform 100 theses about the aesthetics of verbatim theatre. A genre often weighed down by discourse on authorial ownership, verbatim theatre, a subgenre of documentary theatre, seeks to re-contextualize found material such as interviews and legal proceedings into a cohesive theatrical experience, often re-distributing a real person’s words and experiences to an actor on a stage. My Name Is Rachel Corrie and The Laramie Project are some of the most famous instances of the genre, and both have been the subjects of controversy for their portrayals of real-life political discourses.

Dana H. re-appropriates Higginbotham’s story to a new physical canvas, and oh, what a canvas Baker is, every mannerism and facial twitch perfectly calibrated to the easygoing drawl floating through the speakers of the theatre. The preservation of Higginbotham’s story in her own voice is beyond effective, and ensures she maintains a striking amount of agency over how the story is told, from its muddy timeline (Higginbotham was held captive over several months) to its sputters and coughs.

Director Les Waters takes every risk of Hnath’s audacious proposal in stride, daring to nudge the very edges of what theatre is and could be. Baker spends most of the 75-minute run time sitting in a chair centre stage, alone, meaning even her tiniest movements are imbued with meaning and significance – a shift in weight from one hip to the other here, a thumb through a crumpled manuscript there. While Waters along with set designer Andrew Boyce have imagined the theatrical world of Dana H. as a deliciously seedy motel room, Waters barely gives Baker (or, by extension, the theatricalized version of Higginbotham) the opportunity to explore it. Baker doesn’t interact with the physical memory of Higginbotham’s captivity – she exists in front of it as a narrator, rather than becoming entangled with it as a pawn. 

Dana H. begs to be experienced live – I fear giving away too much here. The play is a masterclass in unreliable narration, sure, but it’s also a stunning case study of what happens when unreliable narrators are treated with empathy and compassion by the writers who share their stories with the world. Hnath himself is intertwined with Higginbotham’s abduction: he was a freshman in college when it happened, totally removed from his mother’s captivity in Florida and the Carolinas. In construction of the play, Hnath paints his mother with strokes of grace letting her muddle forward in her memories in all their messiness. No, she doesn’t remember exactly how those months played out; yes, to an extent, she does blame herself. But regardless, someone should have done something to save her. Even unreliable narrators are worthy of justice.

Dana H. is a gift of a production, realized gorgeously by Waters’ design team and produced with the characteristic aplomb of Crow’s Theatre. If you enjoy true crime, intriguing design, or theatre of the highest possible degree, this one’s for you – it’s a doozy.

Dana H runs at Factory Theatre until April 7. Tickets are available here.

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

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, CBC Arts, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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