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'her.' by Deborah Shaw

Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen Street East, Toronto.

Credit: Brad Vos. Pictured: Deborah Shaw as Ilsa

Joe Szekeres

An edge-of-the-seat, intense production thanks to Deborah Shaw’s understated performance. There’s a great deal of sub-contextual meaning underneath her calm demeanour.

German-born Ilsa (Deborah Shaw) prepares for the arrival of her good friend, Helga, and Helga’s great-nephew, Gunter, with last-minute dusting and furniture arranging. She sports the latest fashion look of the time. She’s coiffed and wears a freshly ironed dress. Her nails are done. Her necklace and shoes accessorize her look. She continues to preen herself and pat her hair to keep it in place.

The setting is 1954, Toronto.

Ilsa loves hosting afternoon teas. She brings out a tray of pastries she has baked for her guests. Helga has returned from a recent visit to Boston, and Ilsa wants to hear all about it. Helga and Gunter arrive; curiously, they are unseen. Ilsa carries on a conversation with them as if they are present. Throughout the course of the conversation, we learn Ilsa is a baker in a shop Helga owns. Helga’s great-nephew is studying History at university in Boston. Throughout the course of the conversation, Gunter wants Ilsa to share more with him about her wartime past. He returns after this initial visit a few weeks later and confronts Ilsa with information learned from his family about Ilsa’s past during the world wars. At first hesitant at Gunter's probing questions, Ilsa finally responds but they become frostier.

A mystery, indeed. Plus, the fact that the title of performer Deborah Shaw’s play is in the third person, lowercase, and red intrigues me further.

The intimate Red Sandcastle Theatre brings the story’s action front and centre. The set design is simple. Chairs and tables are placed to suggest this is a sitting room in Ilsa’s home. Realistic-looking 50s-era props, from a dial telephone to teacups and a coffee urn, suggest we have entered a time from long ago. It is the hanging picture frame which draws attention, however. There is no picture inside. Why is that?

The mystery deepens more.

‘her.’ becomes an edge-of-the-seat production as the story unfolds thanks to playwright and performer Deborah Shaw. Under David Agro’s assured direction, Shaw delivers a compelling performance of a woman who has a past like each of us does. Something about this woman makes me want to learn more about her. She’s commanding when she first enters. Her posture is perfect. There’s dignity and class about this lady. Her diction and elocution are pristine. She’s witty. There are times when I found myself smiling at a couple of cheeky references made during the initial icebreaker when her guests arrive.

This playfulness soon changes, and first impressions of Ilsa become altered as she shares what happened in her past with Gunter and the audience.

And it’s fascinating when all becomes clear.

It’s quite the task for an actor to remain fully committed and in the moment in a solo performance.

Shaw nicely does.

She responds naturally as if Helga and Gunter have asked her a question. It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game as Ilsa dodges some of Gunter’s questions early on. She elucidates further as his questions get more pointed at the end of the first scene and into the second.

By the end of the play, questions of certainty and truth of what we think we know are called into question.

‘her.’ is one of those plays that should be discussed after the curtain call.

See it in its short run. It closes on September 10.

Final comment: This production of ‘her.’ is a re-working of the original Toronto Fringe Festival presentation. I never saw that version so I have nothing to go in comparison.

Running time: approximately one hour with no intermission.

‘her.’ runs until September 10 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen Street East, Toronto. For tickets:

Zippy Said Productions presents ‘her.’ by Deborah Shaw
Performed by Deborah Shaw
Director and Dramaturg: David Agro
Music composed and recorded by Beverly Lewis
Tech assistant: Donna Dee Toth

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