Walking into Venus Theatre, I was immediately struck by the theatre’s small size. Settling into my seat—which was in the back row of the 20-something-seat house—I couldn’t help but wonder what it was going to be like to watch a show in such an intimate setting. I felt almost as though I were sitting on the stage itself. But as the play went on, I came to realize this was a good thing; never before had I seen a show where I felt so much like I was a part of the action. I could see the actors; slightest movements; I could detect the slightest changes in their inflections. And when I left the show, I left with a sense that I had just enjoyed theatre in a way few would ever have the privilege to.
“The Ravens” is the world premiere of the staged version Alana Valentine’s award-winning radio play of the same name. It tells the story of a young former sex worker named Kira (Suzanne Edgar) who is struggling to decide what to do after she receives a large victim’s compensation payout. As a troublesome old friend named Marg (Ashley Zielinski) reenters Kira’s life, demanding a cut of the check to repay an old debt, a budding friendship with Nina (Erin Hanratty), a naïve but kindhearted social worker, seems to be just what Kira needs to overcome her difficult situation.
“Watching [the four actresses’] interactions […] immersed me in the lives of the characters, in the seedy underbelly of a city in a country I’ve never visited, in the tribulations of a world I’ll likely never be a part of.”
Alana Valentine’s script is, for the most part, provocative, complex, and stirring, even if at times it feels like the story she’s telling isn’t entirely new. Though her characters are usually strong enough to support the occasionally derivative narrative within which they exist, I admit there were times their decisions and conversations struck me as trite or oversimplified. Still, there were few times this triteness was so stark that it pulled me out of the fiction of the story completely; the quality of the show’s acting, and its direction by Deborah Randall, were such that I remained engrossed even on the occasions when the dialogue felt forced or the characters acted somewhat unrealistically.
Beyond its basic plot, much of the significance of “The Ravens” seemingly lies in Valentine’s use of symbolism. The show is full most obviously of symbolism of birds—birds representing freedom, birds representing inner demons, birds representing love. However, at a certain point, these images start to lose their meaning with how often and how randomly they’re thrown into the story. Kira’s fantastical dreams of the eponymous ravens made for some very art house-esque scenes, but their function in the grand scheme of the show was vague at best. Similarly, Kira and Nancy’s (Alison Talvacchino) striptease set to William Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle” was essential to the plot, but its explanation in-story—that it was a striptease they used to perform for a man whose family had recently died in a fire—seemed rather forced.
All that being said, I came away from “The Ravens” floored by the talent of the cast. The four actresses each brought such depth, humanity, and honesty to their characters. Alison Talvacchino’s performance as Nancy, though perhaps not the most dynamic in the show, excellently portrayed the character’s thoughtful nature and understated wisdom. Ashley Zielinski was cruel and intimidating as the leather jacket-clad Marg; no actor has ever made me as genuinely frightened as she did when she dragged Kira around the stage by her hair, or when she threatened to break Nina’s fingers. Erin Hanratty gave an appropriately humble performance as Nina, wonderfully expressing the character’s generosity and empathy. Perhaps most compelling was Suzanne Edgar, who was devastatingly convincing in her embodiment of Kira’s anger, frustration, desperation, panic, and even in her moments of humor and clarity. The complex dynamics between the various characters seemed like second nature to the actresses, as did the perfect Australian accents with which they spoke. Watching their interactions did more than help me simply understand the plot of the play; it immersed me in the lives of the characters, in the seedy underbelly of a city in a country I’ve never visited, in the tribulations of a world I’ll likely never be a part of.
The design of the show played an equal part in throwing the audiences into this foreign world. Sound design by Neil McFadden filled the theatre with the busy white noise of a bustling city street and the fast, bass-driven rhythms of a club. Though Amy Rhodes’s sets were sparse—various small set pieces placed around the perimeter of the circular stage, which served different purposes throughout the show—they were more than effective at conveying the moods of the various scenes, whether it be the brightly colored containers at Nina’s chocolate shop or the messy drawers of Kira’s apartment.
Though I had my problems with the story, “The Ravens” was ultimately an enthralling and empowering production. I’m not sure if it quite got across all the themes and messages it was trying to convey, but in its attempt to do so, it managed to create a work that reflected many truths of the human condition, while at the same time being entertaining and engaging. I recommend seeing “The Ravens,” if only to be a part of a completely unique theatrical experience, with a captivating cast and stunning design work.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: sexual content, adult language, violence, partial nudity.
“The Ravens” at Venus Theatre runs November 16th, 17th, 18th, 24th, and 25th at 8pm, and November 19th and 26th at 3pm. For tickets, click here.