The Island Fringe Festival typically includes solo productions, and this year it has two: one-woman show Head War (written and performed by poet Sadie McCarney) and one-man show Cowardice (created and performed by Benton Hartley of Desert Island Theatre Company). Both are confessional monologues (at least in part), both deal with mental illness, both are staged at DownStreet Dance Studio, both won festival awards and both explore unsettling subjects with nerve and wit, though they differ substantially in terms of tone and execution.
Winner of the Oscar Wilde award, Head War is a “found text performance” chronicling its creator’s 2013 hospitalization for acute psychosis. The play incorporates extensive official textual records from her two-month hospital stay, though there’s also plenty of original observations, recollections and ruminations from McCarney herself, so it’s far from a purely clinical account.
Solo shows require daring, especially confessionals, but Head War takes this to a whole other level: McCarney relives some of her worst memories in front of a live audience with courage, insight and wit, often unflinchingly dark yet sometimes surprisingly funny – and with a poet’s artful flair for language, “what crackles in the blood.”
As a newcomer to theatre, her presentation skills aren’t quite on a par with her textual aplomb – on opening night she seemed a bit disorganized and too often rushed through her lines, reducing their vocal clarity and not always giving her words enough time to connect with the audience. More measured, deliberate pacing might give both show and performer a bit more room to breathe.
Winner of the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre (PARC) Award, Cowardice is a more confident, polished production from a much more experienced actor, and it strikes a lighter tone as well. Created and performed by Benton Hartley of Desert Island Theatre Company, directed by Aaron Ryder and stage managed by Kassinda Bulger, this one-man show about one man’s lifelong struggle with anxiety examines Hartley’s many fears and how he deals with them.
This is discussed largely through monologues but also via many dialogues with pre-recorded audio clips of himself posing as other characters. These exchanges are sometimes framed as imaginary TV show scenes airing in Hartley’s head, and the other characters are often represented by several disembodied mannequin heads manipulated by Hartley.
The results are somewhat uneven – not all the character voices are created equal, for instance (Female Foreign Hartley is not the breakout character of 2021) – but Hartley’s wry, thoughtful, frequently self-deprecating observations, playfully meta TV-styled interludes and wearily emotional, often funny delivery make it a consistently appealing, engaging and sympathetic performance.
Hartley’s show is the more technically ambitious of the two, juggling much more in the way of props, audio cues, blocking and so on, successfully for the most part. Cowardice also makes more custom-tailored use of its performance space, specifically the interesting ways in which Hartley interacts with the dance studio’s mirrored wall, though reflected glare from some of his lighting gear was a recurring irritant.
Glare aside, a literally mirrored room is an oddly apt space in which to stage a couple of plays built around figurative reflection; and together or separately, these shows were well worth a trip through the looking-glass.