Island Fringe Festival:
Review by Sean McQuaid
Your withered wordsmith knows youth is a vital component of any thriving theatre scene, so it's reassuring to see creative young Island thespians doing fine work like Nutshell. Staged in the outdoor patio area at the Beanz coffee shop as part of the Island Fringe Festival, this dark comedy is a co-production of UPEI's venerable Vagabond Productions and a new company, The Fantastic Space.
The latter company's founder, ubiquitous young local theatre fixture Benton Hartley, is the author and co-star of Nutshell. Inspired by (but not directly based on) Hartley's own experiences with social anxiety, the play stars Justin Shaw as Jonah, a young man whose long-term depression and anxiety spiral out of control after he is fired from his job and hides out in his apartment for 13 days, shunning friends and family.
Director Rory Starkman (previously director and co-star of last year's Fringe highlight Small Talk) makes good use of the Beanz space, arranging much of the action downstage but with lots of upstage depth and free-ranging movement courtesy of the surrounding courtyard. Sight lines are good, and the composition and physical action are varied enough to offer points of interest from multiple audience angles.
Starkman also assembles and helms a strong ensemble of actors including Hartley, Shaw and Starkman's Small Talk writer/co-star Kassinda Bulger. Ashley MacLeod plays Jonah's best friend and unrequited crush Ellie, Hartley plays her significant other Bryce, and Bulger, Dylan Gaudet, Noah Nazim and Morgan Wagner steal assorted chunks of the show as the voices in Jonah's head: Naivity, Catastrophe, Apathy and Intimacy, respectively. It's a bit like an adult male version of Pixar's excellent Inside Out film.
Shaw is quite good as Jonah — believably troubled, bitter and intense but still sympathetic. MacLeod and Hartley are natural and likeable as Jonah's friends, and both have an easy, organic interplay with Shaw. Bulger is loads of capricously playful fun as the most child-like of Jonah's inner voices, the well-cast Gaudet and Wagner are effective in their parts, and Nazim is quite entertaining. His seething stare often feels more like Anger than Apathy, but he's vividly memorable regardless and helps instill a real sense of menace in the voices tormenting Jonah. Jay Gallant, Kat Nazim and Greg Doran also do solid work in assorted supporting roles.
Hartley is trying to say something important about a serious topic here, which could easily drift into cloying very-special-episode territory; but the play largely avoids that trap, partly through handy narrative devices like Jonah writing an article about his condition. This enables the character to talk about his issues directly and even somewhat didactically without feeling wholly unnatural.
Also helping keep the story grounded are a sense of psychological realism — the story doesn't pretend to solve all of Jonah's problems in an hour — and even more importantly, a sense of humour. Nutshell may be a serious message play, but generous spoonfuls of comedy help the medicine go down.