The Art of Kneading by Helen Knight (presented by Farenheight350) was a late entrant into the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival, so it isn’t in the printed program. This absence of advertising means that Knight needs (kneads?) all the help she can get to avoid playing to small houses. That would be a shame, as her passionate, well-written and partially autobiographical show about the lengths mothers will go to make sure their children are fed deserves an audience.
Millennial Knight is attending a bread-baking class; a very bourgeois act, she admits, for a woman who grew up on welfare. As she wrestles with the dough and whether or not to snap a selfie of her yeast-wrangling, she reminisces about her mother’s struggle to raise three children as a pot-scrubber, and her resolute belief that pride bows before sustenance. She’s also catapulted back to the story of Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first immigrant to cross through Ellis Island, and a more present story of a young nurse on a school placement in Zambia, combating both AIDS and childhood malnutrition.
The themes of caretaking, motherhood, and disillusionment are strong throughout her evocative text, as the women experience the heartbreaking realities of poverty. Whether it’s Moore describing the loss of several young children, the nurse’s shock at a young boy so poorly fed that he sounds more like a kitten than a human being, or Knight herself detailing the unfair demands and rules of the Canadian welfare system, the visceral detail of the stories and their emotional portrayal create moving imagery. She leavens these sad stories with jokes about her lacklustre baking skills.
Knight switches back and forth through the arcs of the three monologues, creating mostly distinct characters. As Annie, she puts on a credible Irish accent and a sense of excitement, then world-weariness. The young nurse and herself as characters are much more similar, and I wasn’t completely sure that they were different people at first. She’s a charismatic performer, and I found myself rooting for all three characters, interested in their stories and development. Sometimes, though, I wished she would slow down a little — her words were always audible, but occasionally a little rushed.
The strong themes and framing device of the baking class were almost enough to make me stop wondering why she chose these three stories to tell, but not quite. Though she ties the characters together at the end, it’s a tenuous connection, and since the other characters’ connection is with an unseen secondary character, it feels a little unsatisfying. It actually takes the focus away from the main character, and makes it seem like it’s no longer her story. I would love for her to expand the personal aspect of the play, or find some more narratively interesting way to explain the connection.
With the current horror stories happening to children across the border and in our own communities, these stories of difficult lives, hard choices, and food insecurity seem instantly relevant. It’s worth thinking outside the (printed) program and checking out this compelling show about the simple act of creating what sustains us.
If nothing else, it’s certainly food for thought.
- The Art of Kneading plays at the Annex Theatre. (736 Bathurst 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 (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warning: mature language.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route which requires a staff escort. Check in at the box office at least 15 minutes prior to showtime.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Friday July 5th, 4:30 pm
- Saturday July 6th, 8:45 pm
- Monday July 8th, 2:00 pm
- Wednesday July 10th, 10:15 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 7:00 pm
- Friday July 12th, 4:45 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 2:00 pm
Photo of Helen Knight by Cassie Molyneux