When I was at Kelly Robson’s launch for Alias Space and Other Stories, she got the inevitable question, “What are you working on next?” And she surprised everyone (or at least me) by revealing she’d been working on a stage play with fellow Canadian authors A.M. Dellamonica and Amal El-Mohtar, to be performed by actor/playwright Margo MacDonald. Even better, it would premiere as part of this year’s Ottawa Fringe Festival – which is happening right now!
Full disclosure, I’ve known the three authors behind Dressed As People for years, so I went into this with the sort of jittery excitement you get in Writer Land when your friends announce cool things. And I was not disappointed. This “triptych of uncanny abduction” is so good, courtesy of the care and attention to detail Kelly, A.M. and Amal put into their work and Margo’s stunningly amazing performances.
The triptych begins with Kelly’s story “Skinless,” told from the perspective of a nun-turned-university professor relating her experience working in a convent. It’s definitely on the creepier and more surreal side of Kelly’s writing, since this convent’s veneer of order covers some pretty dark actions. I kept thinking to myself, Why is she telling this story to these students? But while the three stories in Dressed As People are very different, there’s a confessional quality that links them together. Through Margo’s intentional pauses and the intensity in her voice, you can feel how this professor’s guilt has stayed with them over the decades, and almost that they’re trying to warn their current students about something.
Similarly, Amal’s “The Shape of Teeth” has a character shouting into the woods where her best friend Sophie disappeared, shifting blame every time she tries to relate their story. The simple words “once upon a time” become this refrain as she becomes gradually more honest, but less composed, with each retelling. But who’s the monster here: the speaker, her friend Sophie, or the fair folk who might have taken her? I also loved the not-so-underlying message that faeries are jerks and need to be treated the same way you would a belligerent drunk at a party, captured by the sneering emphasis Margo adds every time they’re mentioned.
“Repositioning” by A.M. Dellamonica presents a demo reel being put together by a cruise ship entertainer in desperate need of work, and is arguably the most strikingly different of the three, at least at first. Except Erica’s confident veneer slips quickly, shown wonderfully as Margo leans right into the camera to tell the person receiving this video that she knows what she’s doing and everything will be fine. There are some amazingly funny lines (“Is it possible to gaslight yourself?”) but the unreal, disturbing undercurrent remains, as the demo reel becomes another confessional, explaining why Erica so badly needs paid work.
I’ve mentioned Margo already, but I have to spotlight her again. Her ability to capture these three widely different characters is one thing; even more remarkable is how she takes a tiny, presumably at-home space and makes you feel like she’s standing on a stage. The set and props are necessarily minimal, but her energy and intensity make you forget that you’re watching a screen. That’s magic right there, and the core of what makes Dressed As People such a compelling show.
And what does “dressed as people” mean? You’ll have to watch to find out and try to figure out who’s disguising themselves in each story and why.
If you like stories with an uncertain take on the supernatural, check out Dressed As People right now. The show is available on demand through the Ottawa Fringe Festival here, but only runs until June 27th. So don’t wait!
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Pulp Literature, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. Check out his latest article discussing solarpunk in fantasy over at The Story Engine Blog. You can follow Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.