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by Morwyn Brebner
Touchstone Theatre
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
November 3-12

The winner of seven Dora Mavor Moore awards in Toronto two years ago, Morwyn Brebner’s Little Mercy’s First Murder ought to be a huge hit here, too.  In a fall season turning out to be one of the strongest in memory for local theatre, this may be the best show yet.

A small-cast musical with simple piano accompaniment, it features some of the smartest dialogue and lyrics you’ll ever hear, and an offbeat, noir sensibility perfectly captured in Katrina Dunn’s delicious Touchstone Theatre production at the Cultch.

Alan Brodie’s dim, atmospheric lighting and the dirty gray brick walls of his tenement set frame the story of Little Mercy Callahan (Katey Wright), a woman from the New York slums charged with killing her mother, circa 1940.

Doggedly pursued by a grotesque, brutal bloodhound of a cop (Donald Adams), Little Mercy is spirited away by hard-bitten crime scene photographer Weegee (William MacDonald), who gives her a tour of his big city beat by night: fires and killings, high society at the opera, and Sammy’s cabaret where the freaks and whores come to play.

Little Mercy has had it tough: “the taste of my past, that’s like drinking piss from a glass,” she sings, typically mixing in references to Proust and Freud.  She’s never driven in a car or eaten in a restaurant, but she’s read Tolstoy and Madame Bovary through her job mopping floors in a library. Her voracious intelligence and appetite for life are piqued by Weegee.

With his cigar, fedora and big flash-camera, he’s the gruff cynic of film noir convention with a sensitive core.  He sympathizes with the underclass but knowingly exploits them through his photography.  Something like love begins to blossom between him and Little Mercy, but Brebner doesn’t allow even a hint of sentimentality to intrude on her dark existential world.

The last half of the play is spent at Sammy’s, where I would gladly have stayed all night.  The proprietor (Dean Paul Gibson) sings a remarkable song about the acts that perform there, such as a pornographic balloon artist.  Sammy is in love with his star act, Norma Divine (Michael Scholar Jr. in drag), whose songs express both bleak cosmology (“the Book of Job is the book of life”) and joyful imagination, the latter in a fabulous rhumba cataloguing creatures of the Amazon, including “turtles who pretend they’re doorknobs.”

Great lines abound, surprising (Weegee’s mother is “a Russian Jew so tiny you could stuff an egg with her”) and shocking (“A dog likes a bone like a bitch likes a slap,” sings the cop).  Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli’s jazzy score, played by Wendy Bross Stuart, is perfectly unobtrusive.  Wright and MacDonald turn in exceptional performances but the entire cast is impeccable, including an under-utilized Tara Jean Wilkin.

I loved this show.  Don’t miss it.

Jerry Wasserman


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