'The Darkest Dark' adapted for the stage by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre and based on the book by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion
Now onstage at Toronto's Young People's Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz. L-R: Craig Lauzon, Ziska Louis, Aurora Browne
There’s no need to fear this ‘Darkest Dark’ Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! ‘The Darkest Dark’ is remarkably feel-good storytelling for its fine performances underscored by Jim Millan’s skillful direction.
It’s the summer of 1969 as the world waits for the Apollo 11 lunar moon landing. We are on Stag Island at the Hadfield cottage.
We meet nine-year-old very precocious Chris (Ziska Louis) having a rather realistic dream. Chris would one day like to become an astronaut. The problem though, he’s afraid of the dark and his friends Herbie (Xavier Lopez) and Jane (Hannah Forest Briand) don’t know of this secret. At the top of the show, Herbie and Jane are part of Chris’s realistic dream. Dad (Craig Lauzon) and Mom (Aurora Browne) purchased the cottage so they could all enjoy the season together. Chris has an older and sometimes bossy sister, Cindy (Evelyn Wiebe).
Along with Chris, Herbie and Jane also hold their own fears of the dark which they keep hidden from each other. The friends spend a great deal of their time playing all kinds of make-believe games and stories. They even come up with the idea of putting on a play involving the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in July of that summer.
To help pass the time and to get Chris interested in other things, his Mom and Dad hire local hippie Keith (Shaquille Pottinger) to instruct their son and his two friends how to canoe safely as there was some trouble on the water last summer. Chris’s older sister, Cindy, takes quite a particular interest in Keith which leads to some hilarious moments.
I turned nine in August back in that ‘summer of ‘69’ so I was keen to walk into the Ada Slaight auditorium to see what greeted me.
Hot Damn! What a hell of a trip back in time. So many memories came flooding to me as I looked at that set and listened to the ‘groovy’ musical soundscape of radio tunes that blared in cars.
I couldn’t take my eyes off that stage as there was so much to explore from Anna Treusch’s magical 3-D pop-up setting of the Hadfield cottage right down to watching the rustling trees slightly moving in the breeze courtesy of Daniele Guevara’s video design. Many realistic-looking period props certainly brought me back to 1969. I especially liked the Radio Flyer red wagon. Bonnie Beecher’s selection of gorgeous warmly lit colours on the cottage walls evoked a sense of warm summer temperatures. I even remember wearing those same kinds of shorts both Chris and Herbie wore so thanks to Anna once again for that reminder.
Deanna H. Choi’s terrific musical soundscape was absolute perfection. I found myself humming along to the Stones’ ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ and ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ and sure as hell was hoping for other audience members my age to do the same thing.
Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre have delightfully adapted Commander Hadfield’s children’s book for the stage with many surprises along the way. Although there are several set changes where the previous plot action stops dead, a terrific decision was made to divert attention away and place our focus elsewhere. Set pieces were seamlessly moved in place by some of the cast with nary the sound of squeaky wheels. I especially liked some of the magic created on the stage thanks to David Ben’s consultantship. What Ziska Louis accomplishes in movement with a tiny ball of light ethereally lights up the stage with tremendous grace and beauty.
Jim Millan directs the production with uber charisma. He treats the young Chris Hadfield’s story and his fear of the dark with the utmost charm and warmth.
And what a cast Millan has assembled.
Craig Lauzon and Aurora Browne are believably credible as Chris’s dutiful parents who selflessly do everything they can to try and break their young son’s fear of the dark. The moment when Chris rings the bell to alert his parents to come to the bedroom is a riot, and what Browne does with that damned thing left me in laughter. Lauzon’s turn as a CBC reporter describing the Apollo 11 lunar landing for some reason reminded me of some of his shtick on ‘The Royal Canadian Air Farce’ which I religiously watched each Friday night. At one point, I was amazed at how Lauzon was able to get out of his reporter’s suit and right back into his dad’s costume in a matter of seconds. Bravo.
As Chris’s older sister, Cindy, Evelyn Wiebe has that perfect amount of sassy, bossy and flippant attitude of a teen who thinks she knows it all. Her depiction of a space monster in Chris’s mind is terrific and Wiebe looks like she’s having a good time at that moment. Shaquille Pottinger’s hippie Keith is totally rad (yes, I know that’s a tired cliché). I liked the fact Keith likes theatre when he learns the kids want to put on a play in preparation for watching the Apollo landing on television. Pottinger’s look on his face when he tells the kids his taste in theatre was a solid juxtaposition to what the hippie image stood for.
Xavier Lopez and Hannah Forest Briand offer most enjoyable performances as the young Herbie and Jane. The youthful grins on their faces certainly made me smile each time they appeared on stage. It felt personally reassuring that Herbie and Jane’s fears of the darkest dark are not uncommon at all among young people. At one point, I’m sure we’ve all experienced Herbie and Jane’s fears. Whether it was intentional on the part of co-writers Millan and MacIntyre, I thought it was a wonderful tribute to name Chris's friend after Herbie Barnes, Artistic Director of YPT since the world premiere of the play takes place at this theatre.
Ziska Louis delivers a heartfelt performance as the young Chris Hadfield. Here is an actor whom I would like to keep an eye on in the future as Louis always remains completely compelling on stage, from narrating Chris’s space adventures to us while in bed to actually living them out in his dreams.
Final Comments: A terrific family outing, ‘The Darkest Dark’ is the perfect choice to introduce young people to the wonders of live theatre.
One of my picks.
Go see it.
Running time: approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.
‘The Darkest Dark’ runs to April 2 on the Ada Slaight Stage in Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 862-2222 or visit youngpeoplestheatre.org.
YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRESENTS THE WORLD PREMIERE
‘The Darkest Dark’ Based on the Book by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion
Adapted for the Stage by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre
Director: Jim Millan
Magic Consultant: David Ben
Set and Costume Designer: Anna Treusch
Lighting Designer: Bonnie Beecher
Sound Designer and Composer: Deanna H. Choi
Video Designer: Daniele Guevara
Stage Manager: Laura Baxter
Cast: Hannah Forest Briand, Aurora Browne, Craig Lauzon, Xavier Lopez, Ziska Louis, Shaquille Pottinger, Evelyn Wiebe.