“Work the problem.” With this mantra, little Chris is determined to conquer his fear of the dark. The stakes are high. If he can’t make it through the night on his own, without his sleep-deprived, dutiful parents snuggled up beside him, he won’t be able to stay up to watch the moon landing. Or, ultimately, to realize his dreams of space travel!
Based on his book (co-authored with Kate Filliion), The Darkest Dark, presented by Young People’s Theatre, is a theatrical spectacle inspired by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s own childhood. Adapted by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre, under Millan’s direction, the story often feels like an episode of Scooby Doo exploding out into three dimensions.
The year is 1969. Chris (Ziska Louis) and his family—Mom (Aurora Browne), Dad (Craig Lauzon) and sister Cindy (Evelyn Wiebe)—are on summer vacation in Stag Island, Ontario. Leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing, Chris fantasizes about cosmic adventures. Louis is an intensely compelling presence, pivoting fluidly between a precocious real-life and his Commander Chris persona—a cocky adventuring hero facing galactic challenges.
Anna Treusch’s colourful sets and costumes evoke a nostalgic, cartoonish late 60s. An angular, forced-perspective cottage breaks apart and flips around to draw you into the intimate details of Chris’s world. Flanking this dynamic set-piece, slices of projection screen allow video designer Daniele Guevara to fill out the space with foliage and immersive, shifting starscapes. In some of the more fanciful moments, this stage becomes a planetarium, transporting us into Chris’s imagination.
During the more trippy sequences, Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design revels in audacious bursts of colour. Oozing forms creep up walls while menacing shadows lurk on the fringes. Deanna Choi’s sound design gives scene changes a psychedelic momentum and establishes time period with pop hits of the era.
Equally hilarious and endearing, Lauzon and Browne are a lovable portrait of supportive, fully-engaged parenting. Wiebe conveys teenage angst and self-importance with a giddy, upbeat charm. Her crush on local canoeing instructor Keith (Shaquille Pottinger) is a cute dimension. His whole surfer-bro hippy schtick is a little too familiar yet Pottinger makes him surprisingly genuine, so we buy in.
Hannah Forest Briand and Xavier Lopez are entirely lovable as Chris’s best friends Jane and Herbie. His fear of the dark is mirrored by Herbie’s fear of the water and Jane’s fear of performing. Chris learns obstructive fears are common, but admitting these fears and helping each confront them can lead to great discoveries.
Scenes are snappy and whimsical, revealing character and maintaining a sense of dress-up and communal play. The aesthetic delivers both impressive effects—the shadow alien puppet makes a truly astonishing appearance—and a collection of artfully crude, make-believe props Chris and his friends use in their games.
Some live magic, devised in consultation with David Ben, enhances the sense of wonder that fuels Chris, making it a tangible reality there on stage. In one brilliant fantasy sequence, he conjures a starfield by flinging tiny points of light into the air. Some disappearing and reappearing gags really sell an epic dream sequence.
Overall, The Darkest Dark captures childhood awe and imagination, invites us into the magic of finding delightfully sinister or inspiring possibilities in everyday objects. It’s consistently funny and thrilling with a moving finale.