her., the creation of writer and performer Deborah Shaw and director David Agro (zippysaid productions), is now playing at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.
The one-person show centres on Ilsa, a German immigrant living in Toronto in the 1950s. Ilsa hosts her friend Helga and Helga’s great-nephew Gunter for coffee one afternoon. Upon Gunter’s insistence, Ilsa shares stories of her family’s experiences through both World Wars. Gunter returns to Ilsa’s home weeks later, pressing her to confirm rumours he has heard about her from his extended family. Ilsa acquiesces to tell the truth, which ends up being far more than Gunter assumed.
I really enjoyed this show. Between Shaw’s writing and command of the stage, Agro’s direction, and original music composed by Beverly Lewis, I felt drawn into a world that felt cohesive and real. I felt compelled to listen intently to Ilsa’s stories in the same way I relish hearing an elder talk of their experiences of the past.
Shaw plays the perfect homemaker in Ilsa – fussing over the comfort of her guests, carefully not oversharing in her first meeting with Helga and Gunter, and all the while maintaining a façade of having it all together. Over the course of the play we see how this façade slowly deteriorates; the transition happens gradually and naturally, which I believe speaks to the strength of the writing and direction.
There are technical parts of this show I really appreciate because I find they are often lacking (or missing entirely) in Fringe shows. Shaw’s movement onstage almost always has a purpose to it; Ilsa’s stage business is prompted by reasons beyond simply moving to break up the monotony of a talking head.
Additionally, Shaw does not break character during the show’s one scene transition. Many performances resort to actors breaking character while moving props and set pieces, but this was one of few shows I have seen at Fringe in which the character development continues in between scenes.
Finally, the set is minimal, and every piece has a purpose; some of the pieces also played a subtle and unique role in the unravelling of Ilsa’s story.
My one critique of the show is that I found the ending abrupt. Ilsa reveals her truth, and the show ends before the audience is given a moment to sit with the information we have just been given, to take in just how messy and complicated her story is, or to even know how Gunter takes it in.
I believe her. is well-crafted theatre and provides an interesting reflection on the times we are living in. While written about the Second World War, I found some moments particularly chilling while thinking about the ways history may be repeating itself as I write this review.
- her. plays at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse. (79 St. George St.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Thursday July 5th, 10:30 pm
- Saturday July 7th, 3:30 pm
- Monday July 9th, 4:30 pm
- Wednesday July 11th, 9:15 pm
- Thursday July 12th, 4:00 pm
- Friday July 13th, 7:30 pm
- Sunday July 15th, 12:00 pm
Photo of Deborah Shaw and David Agro by David Vos