(For a glimpse into the creation of 1991, read my preview article here.)
Writer/Director Cole Lewis’ 1991 premieres at The Theatre Centre, presented by Guilty by Association as part of Why Not Theatre’s 2019 Riser Project. This multi-media piece, set in the titular year, tells the coming-of-age story of Nicole, a 12-year-old drifter. After getting into some trouble with the police, and wanting to distance herself from the gruesome murder of a classmate by a local serial killer, she flees across the border to the Deep South, hoping to reconnect with her father—a boozy, fist-swinging Vietnam veteran.
Presented as a live-movie, 1991 has a decidedly analogue feel. With two overhead projectors centred on a long table, shadow puppeteers (Mina James and Montserrat Videla) manipulate a variety of figures projected onto a large screen upstage. With black-and-white photographic elements establishing location, the scenes are broken up into a series of cleverly cinematic shots. The innovative visuals, created by Lewis and projection designer Patrick Blenkarn, have a jittery, low-tech charm that is enhanced, not hindered, by the inevitable glitches that occur.
Lewis provides the voice of Nicole. The other characters are performed by Jessica Carmichael, her voice digitally live-altered by sound designer Sam Ferguson. The format plays off our attention being torn between the visuals/audio and the performers creating them. Our suspension of disbelief ebbs and flows as our consciousness hovers between the story and the process through which it is told.
The synthetic quality of Carmichael’s distorted voice enhances this sense of blended technologies yet it was the one element that didn’t sit entirely well with me. Most aspects of the production feel distinctly gritty and human, so the electronic sound of the supporting characters seems somewhat incongruous. My ears adjusted well enough, but I think the warmth of a thoroughly human voice would have deepened the immersion.
With father and daughter on the road, the first part of the story bumps along rather light-heartedly. Their awkward, fumbling attempts at connection feel genuine and heart-warming. With the death of her classmate looming in the background and poverty hovering over them, they manage to find joy and adventure in their ragged, dumpster-diving way of life.
In a local dive bar, we are introduced to my favourite character: a female bartender whom Nicole clicks with immediately. Rough around-the-edges and sharp-tongued, her affection for Nicole is genuine and deeper than mere friendliness. She’s the only person who seems to intuitively understand the specific sort of guidance and reinforcement Nicole requires—and, more importantly, provides it.
An ominous dread creeps into the story as Nicole falls in with some ill-intentioned young men. As she is taken to increasingly more isolated locations, the hairs at the back of my neck prickle up, and the story’s lurking darkness rises to surface.
After a quietly traumatic incident, we follow Nicole in a thrilling rush of defiant, hopeful energy. Lewis concludes the show with a beautiful and haunting head-first dive into whimsical metaphor. The ending to Nicole’s story isn’t literal, it’s a hauntingly poetic ode to the resilience of youth and burgeoning self-actualization.
With a deceptively simple narrative thrust, 1991 offers bold and viscerally stunning moments that feel tangible and authentic—withsome that left me quite breathless.
1991 runs from May 22 to June 1, 2019
at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
visit the show page for info and tickets