The sun may have been shining on Thursday, but inside the walls of Theatre Passe Muraille, it was raining tears.
May 12 marked the opening of Power Productions’ Crippled, presented by Theatre Passe Muraille as part of their thrilling #beyondTO festival. Recently nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, Paul David Power’s show explores his experience growing up as “the little crippled boy” in his small Newfoundland town, and his later experiences as a disabled, openly gay man living in Toronto. It’s an exploration of death, life, and redemption: but above all else, Crippled is a powerful love story.
More specifically, Crippled is a love letter to Power’s late partner Jonathan, and to say it tugs at the heartstrings would be a wild understatement. The last time I openly wept in a theatre was in 2019 when I saw Come from Away in London’s West End — at this point, I can only conclude that Newfoundlanders are the masters of heartfelt drama.
The writing in this piece is stunning — tender, honest, deeply vulnerable, and at times permeated with a desperate rage — and the actors deftly navigate those emotions with nuance and truth. I’ve never been part of an audience so invested in a show, but the opening night crowd was hanging on every word. Wildly intimate and intense moments were underscored by complete silence, broken only by the occasional laugh or sniffle from an affected audience member. Despite the heartbreaking story at its core, the show is not a sad one: it’s filled with hope, possibility, love, and humour — at one point, a highly relatable scene about the awkwardness of online dating had the entire audience in fits and giggles. But it’s exactly that hope and love, coupled with a hefty dose of pain and guilt, that creates a new soundscape: nobody wants to watch an actor try to cry on stage, but when they’re so invested that they can’t hold the tears back? Thank the universe for my mask, because I was a mess.
Power is a completely captivating performer from the moment makes his way on stage. The show begins with him standing alone on a pier, staring down into the water, trying to make a decision. It’s a silent sequence that lasts less than a minute, but it tells of decades of pain. The decision to close the Mainspace Stage’s second level for #beyondTO was a smart one — the entire audience is close enough to the stage to catch every expression, every beat of a painful moment which might have been lost in a larger venue.
Indeed, the small space is a blessing throughout the entire show, allowing the actors to embrace naturalism and truth in their performances without devolving into a heavily performative style common in larger theatres. It feels unrehearsed in the way that only perfectly rehearsed shows can: every moment feels like a new discovery, and it allows for the relationships to unfold and develop organically.
Power shines as Tony, a man contemplating ending his life after the loss of a loved one. His dry humour and no-bullshit attitude create an honesty in his performance while leaving plenty of space for vulnerability. Pat Dempsey’s Evan is charismatic and buoyant, with perfectly calibrated comedic timing that cuts through even the most tense of moments. They are electric onstage together: despite beginning the show as strangers, every moment between Evan and Tony feels intimate, and their chemistry is undeniable. Long moments of silence between the two create a beautiful tension as the audience watches two men work to open up and find common ground.
Matt White turns out a wonderful performance in the difficult role of gay-club-douche-turned-sympathetic-prospect Carl. In total, he spends less than ten minutes onstage, but he deftly handles his character’s development, taking advantage of flashbacks and repetitive sequences to provide the audience with a fully realized and nuanced character that is, in the long run, worth a chance.
The design trio of Robert Gauthier (lighting), Kirsti Mikoda (set), and George Robertson (sound) does wonders for the show. From the moment the house lights dimmed, the audience was transported to a creative and compelling Newfoundland pier: a gently blurred video backdrop presented a soft landscape of city lights and streets; gentle water sounds perfectly complemented the lights dancing off a piece of black tulle in front of the pier; and wooden posts and bright red benches provided plenty of playing space on the small wooden stage. The pier itself was deceptively small, and director Danielle Irvine took advantage of the entire space. Through flashbacks and scene changes, simple lighting and video changes completely transformed the space with seamless transitions that never distracted from the action.
Theatre Passe Muraille has made accessibility a priority in their #beyondTO festival, and every performance of Crippled is slated as a relaxed performance. Throughout the show, the house lights never dim fully, allowing visitors to leave the venue to use the washroom, grab water, or head to the designated calm space outside the theatre for a bit of a break. Their venue is wheelchair accessible, with designated seating reserved for those with mobility aids, and the pay-what-you-can price model creates an inviting space for anyone who wants to attend.
This second live show in Theatre Passe Muraille’s #beyondTO is a perfect example of the power of live theatre: Crippled clearly resonated with its opening night audience, and I woke up the morning after the show with one quote still ringing through my brain.
“Don’t let the memory of me cripple you.”
Crippled runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until May 21, as part of their #beyondTO festival. To find out more about the festival and to purchase tickets, visit the TPM website.