Review: Choking the Butterfly (Rarely Pure Theatre)

Toronto’s Rarely Pure Theatre stages James Johnson’s bleak play Choking the Butterfly

I was lucky to see Choking the Butterfly by Rarely Pure Theatre,  playing in the Storefront Theatre. The sun was shining outside, but all that was left from the gorgeous day was the incredible heat when the theatre’s front doors closed. My guest and I grabbed our tickets and made our way through the theatre entrance, dubbed “The Button Factory.”

Choking the Butterfly, written by James Johnson and directed by Lionel Walsh, is about twins, who name themselves Barney and Betty. Barney and Betty have lived their entire lives as conjoined twins, and have recently been surgically separated. They live in The Button Factory, which appears to be an abandoned warehouse. The siblings take their abundance of free time to cope with the change, both in very different ways.

Ken Caughey and Christina Bryson do very well as Barney and Betty. They move and speak in sync with the other, proving their bond was more than flesh. They begin the play by holding hands, as if they are still conjoined. I got the impression that even as they moved away from each other, or sat beside each other, they wanted their hands to be clasped.

Michael Hogan played the role of Brody, who can be summed up as a random corrupter. Brody seems to exist to enter the twins’ lives, stir the pot, the walk off to let them deal with the mess. Hogan plays Brody as sleazy, particularly when he’s recruiting for his business of photographing/recording people he deems “freaks”. He has the shamelessness of a TMZ paparazzo. As difficult as it was to identify with someone with that moral calibre, I believed that I was supposed to relate to him the most. Brody is the outside looking in at the twins’ strange lives. Brody is the average person, rubbernecking at a tragedy on the road. It’s not a proud quality, but it’s understandable.

Choking the Butterfly is utterly bleak. The set made by stage manager and lighting designer Corey Palmer is a sparse warehouse with an empty bathtub, a stool, and old milk cartons strewn across the floor. The twins wear what appear to be pajamas, Barney in only grey sweatpants and Betty in sweatpants and a sports bra. The plot is undoubtedly bleak. Director Lionel Walsh described the play as an exploration of bleakness: “It is also a play about the grittiness of life, the evil that surrounds us and the uncertainty of our survival…”

The grit runs through each moment, and the dreariness is unrelenting. I felt like with each minute I watched, I grew heavier. It was like having rocks piled on top of my shoulders. I had a physical reaction to the comfortless content of Choking the Butterfly, wanting to get up and leave the room. I wanted to walk it off in the fresh air, or at least go home to wash the grime off of me.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the play. The play was unique, interesting, and fulfilled its intent. It took a message that cruelty corrupts innocence and pushed it into the audience’s face. It did not hold back, compelling me to keep watching, even if I wanted to look away. Choking the Butterfly isn’t meant to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s worth watching, but you might need to prepare yourself emotionally. At least, make sure you can get a hug when it’s over.


  • Choking the Butterfly is playing until June 19th at Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor St. West).
  • Showtimes run from Thursdays to Saturdays at 8:00pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00pm.
  • Tickets are $20 at general price and $15 for students/seniors. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

Photo of Ken Caughey, Christina Bryson by Gabby Bleyendaal