North of Smokey, created by David Doucette and produced by DaVid Studios, follows Frank Curtis, a one-armed man from Ingonish, Nova Scotia as he traverses the country. The production winds back and forth from Frank’s present, shown in live-action, to his past, illustrated with sketches and narration (animated by Julie Mongeluzi).
The production opens with Frank just released from prison. He’s told he needs to reintegrate into society but seems relatively uninterested. He leaves prison and begins a journey across the country, slowly walking and hitchhiking, but the audience isn’t privy to where he’s headed.
The play quickly moves back in time and the audience sees Frank the child in a tumultuous home life with an antagonistic brother and an angry father. Soon, we learn how the young teen came to lose an arm, and how his life was shaped by that loss.
North of Smokey makes interesting use of this year’s virtual medium by literally illustrating the past with pencil sketches instead of live actors. I really enjoyed the uniqueness of this choice. In addition, storytelling has deep roots in Cape Breton Island’s history, and the play continued this tradition by using narration paired with illustrations to tell Frank’s history.
As the production weaves back and forward in time, the juxtaposition between Frank surrounded by community as a young person, and complete isolation in his present life poses a question. Did Frank ever feel like part of his community when the people around him often dragged him down, used him, and treated him poorly?
At no time does the audience get a perspective from Frank himself. Instead, the audience watches from the sidelines and must try to interpret how Frank feels. The one moment in the play I felt the audience had some insight into his feelings is a scene between Frank and his father Adrian.
At the Curtis family home one evening, Frank’s brothers Clifford and William walk in wearing their Cape Breton Highlanders uniforms, an infantry in the Canadian army. Frank tells his father he tried to join the Cape Breton Highlanders but was turned away, presumably because of his missing arm. In this one moment, the audience sees Frank’s true feelings, upset that he isn’t able to join the other men.
Because we don’t have much insight into Frank’s own thoughts, and the production often skips forward in time, I found it difficult to see the evolution of Frank’s character development. I think the production could benefit from more insight into Frank’s own thoughts as we watch his life unfold.
Although the production portrays Frank’s story from childhood to adulthood, I also felt the structure lacked a story arc. There was no discernable climax in the hour-long production and I felt the play ended rather abruptly. While the past does circle back around to meet the future, the cadence of the play didn’t slow down to indicate we were reaching the end.
What I did love, though, were the subtleties of North of Smokey. The small sounds in the live-action scenes, like the ticking of a car’s turn signal, were resounding in the quiet of Frank’s present life. The pencil-drawn characters were animated by the steady narration and even the characters that only appeared on-screen in pencil felt solid and developed.
North of Smokey tells the odyssey of Frank Curtis and ushers him into his post-prison future. Although I felt the story and character arc could be further developed, I enjoyed the innovative use of a virtual production and the callback to the traditional storytelling of Nova Scotia.
- North of Smokey is playing on-demand at the Virtual 2021 Toronto Fringe Festival.
- Purchase a $5 Membership to access the On-Demand programming on the Fringe website, then Pay What You Can to each show as you go, with the suggested price of $13 per show.
- Memberships can be purchased here. View the virtual on-demand show listings here.
- Accessibility notes:
- On-Demand shows: videos are closed captioned, transcripts are available for all audio content, documents are screen-reader friendly, and all digital images are provided with alternative text descriptions. These access supplements have been generated by the company and reviewed by the Festival. They may vary slightly from company to company.
- Fringe Primetime presentations will feature Auto-Transcribed Captioning.
Photo of David Doucette by David Doucette