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Review: Fresh Hell an insightful tale

Strong performances and engaging writing makes Fresh Hell a winner. See Shadow Theatre's latest through Feb. 5.
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Sydney Williams and Kate Newby in Conni Massing's Fresh Hell. Photo: Ian Jackson

Canadian playwright Conni Massing has created a thought-provoking and engaging work with her world premiere of Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre's latest piece playing now. 

The idea of two real-life characters from completely different times coming together is always a fun exercise--along the lines of famous people you could have dinner with, dead or alive. What would you ask Abraham Lincoln, for example?

Massing has written a fascinating bringing together of martyr and saint, Joan of Arc, and early 20th century American poet/satirist Dorothy Parker. The unlikely pairing of feminists grappling with their own lives and issues of their times makes for a thoroughly enjoyable play, brought to life by Sydney Williams as Joan, and Kat Newby as Parker.

It takes a moment for the audience and characters to get their bearings in this two-act tale, all figuring out together that they're in some sort of time warp limbo resembling New York's Central Park. Are these two ladies dead? Joan tears onto the set armored and injured from battle, with an arrow stuck in her upper chest. Parker meanwhile, spins in amongst the park boulders, wrists bloodied from a recent suicide attempt. Slowly, the women uncover who each other is, revealing their fears and the big questions plaguing them both: what is my life's purpose? Have I fulfilled it? 

As director Tracy Carroll explains, the women seem an unlikely pair, but are really more alike than we think. Both challenged the norms of the 'working woman in their respective patriarchal societies; Dorothy in the 20th century and Joan in the 15th century. Through the play's simple act of holding space for each other to share their fears and points of view, the pair find comfort, a nurturing and understanding that transcends the ages.

Encountering each other at a few different points in their lives, Joan as she awaits trial, Parker earlier and then later in her life, audiences learn more than they thought they knew. Hearing voices of saints as a young girl and messages that led her to help the King of France fight off the English--this is the Joan we know. In Massing's take we see a Joan that, whether in her farm girl dress or in men's garb, is a young woman that fears her fate, but even more, fears sacrificing who she really is--to live without her beliefs.

And Parker, who feels she hasn't achieved anything meaningful, shares those anxieties too, often with her dry wit and humour at the ready. We get a glimpse into the mind of a woman who battled depression and addiction and, in Fresh Hell, is pushed by Joan to examine her life differently--to feel that maybe she has achieved her purpose, or at least is at peace with whatever life she's fashioned.

Both performers, Newby and Williams do a great job conveying their character's truths. Messing's Fresh Hell is entertaining and enlightening. Check it out at the Varscona, through Feb 5.