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review

The audience is split into two groups.Dahlia Katz/Photo by Dahlia Katz. Costume Design by Nick Blais. Assistant Costume Design by Cindy Dzib and Niloufar Ziaee. Title Art by Greg Doble.

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  • Title: Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus
  • Written by: Gillian Clark
  • Director: Mitchell Cushman
  • Actors: Katherine Cullen, Liz Der, Sébastien Heins, Amy Keating, Elena Reyes, Cheyenne Scott, Merlin Simard, Jeff Yung
  • Companies: Outside the March, Factory Theatre, Neworld Theatre
  • Venue:
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To August 28, 2022

If you’re going to return to live, immersive productions after more than two years of pandemic pivoting, you might as well make your comeback epic.

That would be Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus, the fiery new creation by Outside the March at Factory Theatre. OtM, Toronto’s leading immersive theatre company, has done some ambitious shows in its 13-year history, but this may be its most structurally intricate. It consists of two interlocking one-act plays performed at the same time in two different spaces, by an ensemble of eight actors, in 16 roles, acting in both plays simultaneously.

The audience, meanwhile, is split into two groups. One group watches Trojan Girls, staged outdoors in Factory’s courtyard, while the other witnesses The Outhouse of Atreus, unspooling in Factory’s Studio Theatre. At intermission, the spectators switch venues, in order to see the other side of the story, as it were.

One group watches Trojan Girls, staged outdoors in Factory’s courtyard.Dahlia Katz/Photo by Dahlia Katz. Costume Design by Nick Blais. Assistant Costume Design by Cindy Dzib and Niloufar Ziaee. Title Art by Greg Doble.

That story is a modern tale of intergenerational trauma, inspired by the ancient Greek tragedies of the Trojan War, borrowing tropes from the vintage teen musical Grease and sprinkled with contemporary references to the climate crisis. The setting is New Troy, a big town/small city by the Bay of Styx, where the adults are awash in dark secrets and unresolved grief, which has spilled over and infected their troubled children.

It’s 2009 and the 100th anniversary of New Troy’s annual “Duck ‘n’ Swing” dance. While the oldies are ostensibly having fun in the decked-out fire hall – complete with a bar, DJ and 50/50 raffle – the underage crowd is exiled outside, hanging around a trash-strewn fire pit.

The kids include 17-year-old macho daredevil Odysseus (Jeff Yung), who is planning a spectacular Evel Knievel-inspired stunt on his dirt bike as a way of asking his heartthrob, Penelope (Cheyenne Scott), to the prom. To lure Penelope, he’s enlisted his closeted sidekick Thalthybius (Merlin Simard), who in turn has bullied the disturbed Andromache (Elena Reyes) into helping him, by threatening to throw her beloved stuffed bunny on the fire.

She’s not the only disturbed Trojan girl. Cassandra (Amy Keating) is a self-styled seer who consumes raw hotdogs and roadkill and recites incantations over the fire. Like that Cassandra of old, nobody pays heed to her dire warnings – perhaps in this case because she’s 12 years old and possibly brain damaged.

The other group witnesses The Outhouse of Atreus.Dahlia Katz/Photo by Dahlia Katz. Costume Design by Nick Blais. Assistant Costume Design by Cindy Dzib and Niloufar Ziaee. Title Art by Greg Doble.

Cassandra is protected by her older step-sister, Hecuba (Liz Der), the two girls having lost their mother, Artemis, when she drowned trying to rescue them in the bay. As you’ve guessed by now, neophyte playwright Gillian Clark plays fast and loose with her Greek mythology, more so than, say, Hadestown, or even Percy Jackson. But she comes up with some compelling latter-day equivalents of the Trojan women, such as that catalyst for conflict: the beauteous Helen, reconceived here as a haughty new girl/mean girl from Calgary and played to snotty perfection by Katherine Cullen.

While the teens grapple with teenage things – menstruation, masturbation, sexual confusion and, in the case of Sébastien Heins’s lovably nerdy Menelaus, a serious peanut allergy – the adults put their woes into context.

At the big dance, Memnon (Heins), this year’s king, is trying to whip up enthusiasm, but he and his subjects are haunted by the traumatic past. Ned the PTSD-stricken vet (Keating) is still mourning his dead love Artemis, when he isn’t selling 50/50 tickets. Sad Orestes (Yung) is still attempting an embarrassing brother-sister act, despite an absent Elektra (Reyes). Add to that the arrival of Helen’s mom Nestra (Cullen), back in town after 20 years, who may be responsible for a house fire all those years ago. Now she’s threatening to reignite an old romance with the married Memnon.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Penelope, attending her first Duck ‘n’ Swing, uneasily straddles the adult and adolescent worlds while carrying a secret of her own.

At intermission, the spectators switch venues, in order to see the other side of the story, as it were.Dahlia Katz/Photo by Dahlia Katz. Costume Design by Nick Blais. Assistant Costume Design by Cindy Dzib and Niloufar Ziaee. Title Art by Greg Doble.

Clark’s text is an expanded version of her earlier one-act, The Ruins, which was performed around a bonfire by Nova Scotia’s Two Planks and a Passion Theatre in 2019. She’s artfully meshed that play, which focused on the teenagers, with the adult storyline, to give a bigger picture of a town whose tragedies are at once commonplace and verging on Greek proportions. Or sometimes just Grease proportions – whenever her vision gets too gloomy, Clark brightens it with comic allusions to that musical and its movie version.

Director Mitchell Cushman’s staging is equally clever and reaches a crescendo outdoors with Odysseus’s stunt, which takes full advantage of the Factory building’s three-storied exterior as well as its courtyard. But part of the show’s kick is just witnessing how Cushman and his team have tackled the logistical feat of running two parallel performances, with the actors quick-changing backstage (or in an elevator, or a parked car) as they race between the venues. It’s even more of a feat when you consider that, in order for us to see both one-acts (a total of more than three hours), the adrenalized cast has to perform them twice.

Clark’s recurring imagery involves fire and feces, accented in Anahita Dehbonehie’s sets by a hellish-looking fire-pit area and a toilet-paper festooned dance hall – not to mention a revolving outhouse. Nick Blaise’s vibrant, character-defining costumes also do a great job of hiding what must be a whole lot of Velcro.

In the past, OtM’s strongest productions have built on excellent pre-existing plays – Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in 2018, Annie Baker’s The Flick in 2019. Here, the company has gambled on a new work by a relative newcomer. Clark’s script has a few weak scenes and foggy subplots, but as a theatrical experience, Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus is, at its best, exhilarating. It feels good to be immersed again.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)