Red Sandcastle Theatre is made for small shows.
A true storefront theatre on Queen Street East, the venue’s a cozy incubator for some of Toronto’s most intimate performances. Red Sandcastle’s a perfect landing spot for Dressed As People: A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction, skilfully written for the stage by three big names in speculative fiction: A.M. Dellamonica, Amal El-Mohtar, and Kelly Robson. Each writer holds the pen for one panel of the “triptych” — suspenseful short stories about queerness, aliens, and more, beautifully brought to life on Red Sandcastle’s slight stage by actor and producer Margo MacDonald — and the result is a fascinating mosaic of the mysteries that lie just beyond the edges of our natural world.
Physically speaking, yes, it’s a teeny performance, a solo seventy minutes of storytelling, but the emotional impact is anything but.
Robson’s is the first vignette, a sad one called “Skinless.” MacDonald as Sister Susan is a nun and CanLit teacher, telling us a story on the first day of a university literature class. She recounts the abuse women and girls faced before and during life at her convent convent, and the trauma that endured long after they escaped. One of the girls seemed to be of another world, at least in the memory of our speaker. It’s dark, heady stuff, and the story’s portrayal of vulnerable women under the care of the Catholic church is reminiscent of Noelle Brown’s Spit.
Then it’s El-Mohtar’s turn. It’s 1827 in England, meaning MacDonald is tasked with a sustained English accent; she manages it, with only the occasional falter into a more North American uptalk. “The Skin of My Teeth” is arguably the strongest of the three vignettes, with a clear narrative arc and cogent-yet-poetic style from El-Mohtar and a consistent, shimmering performance from MacDonald. A young woman in ponytail and cloak tries to tell us a story — “once upon a time, there were two girls,” she chokes out, never finishing the sentence to satisfying completion — and slowly, we learn about the two girls, and their love for one another, and the sudden disappearance of Sophie. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, and masterfully paced, a smart pick for Dressed As People’s middle.
The show concludes with Dellamonica’s sardonic and desperate “Repositioning.” We follow a veteran on the lesbian cruise circuit as she makes a demo reel for her agent — just as in the two stories before it, there’s a smart device woven into the text that gives meaning to MacDonald’s direct address — and throughout the reel, memories seem to overtake her as she recalls a hauntingly gorgeous woman from a past voyage. Nowadays, the siren’s just a fragment, but we can see through our narrator that there was once a time when she was so much more than a punchline in an audition tape.
MacDonald’s a truly gifted storyteller, able to command a room through tiny gestures and moments of eye contact and adept at taking on the forms of these ghosts “dressed as people.” For the most part, director Mary Ellis’ staging works: we follow MacDonald from left to right as she moves from story to story, picking up and leaving behind necessary costume pieces as she goes. The choice to keep each story spatially isolated makes sense, but also limits MacDonald’s range of motion in each one — perhaps a bigger playing space would allow for more fulsome blocking — but the intimacy Red Sandcastle provides means even a relatively still performance is a captivating one.
Following its hugely successful run at the Ottawa Fringe (one which earned awards for Audience Choice and Outstanding Solo Performance), we’re lucky to have this thoughtful, sensitive, impactful solo show right downtown in Toronto. If you’re a sci-fi or speculative fiction fan, this’ll be one for you — powerful words in the mouth of a masterful storyteller.
Dressed As People runs March 7–18, 2023 at Red Sandcastle Theatre.