The Believers: testing the limits of belief

Nathan Cuckow, Nadien Chu, Patrick Howarth in The Believers, a MadFandango production. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s one of those evenings of theatre when you emerge, rattled and intrigued, asking yourself and whoever’s outside smoking “what just happened there?”.

Good question. One of the oddest, eeriest, most unnerving plays of the season is happening at the Roxy, in a production by the adventurous indie collective MadFandango.

There’s a sky-splitting storm, a 40 days-and-nights spectacular coming at us right out of the Old Testament. And it rages in supernatural fashion thanks to a memorable design by T. Erin Gruber. It’s the central character in Nancy McAlear’s North American premiere production of The Believers, by the English playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen).

The weather, to use the banal term for something active and possibly malevolent, is actively flooding into human affairs.

Upstage, a fraught woman in the shadows paces and counts out steps, over and over, as she smokes.

Elsewhere on the stage: “Let’s start with what we know,” say the couple, Joff (Nathan Cuckow) and Marianne (Nadien Chu), we see up closer.

What they know is precious little. They frantically parse the meagre fragments of a terrible event at which they were both present, but not present enough. Guilt and rage, mutual recriminations, are the keynotes of their review. Marianne is physically cracked with grief; her face and body seem fractured. Off can’t stop moving; the ground seems to be burning under his feet. The performances are compelling.

The deluge, a flood of epic scale, had driven them, along with their nine-year-old daughter Grace, into the home of their neighbours Ollie (Patrick Howarth) and Maud (Gianna Vacirca), whose daughter Joyous is Grace’s age. The two couples aren’t a comfortable fit, to say the least, as the play takes us to the fateful night. The Believers seems to be an entry into the ample theatre repertoire of awkward dinner parties where everyone ends up mad, with indigestion. 

The chemistry between Joff and Marianne, set forth vividly by Cuckow and Chu, is jokey and vulgar. They’re loud, crude secularists who scoff at political correctness, especially after a couple of drinks. Their monster kid is driving them crazy with her demands, and they have no problem saying so (“she’s a walking nightmare!”).

Patrick Howarth, Gianna Vacirca in The Believers. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

The look on their faces when their smiling hosts propose saying grace before eating is a choice comic moment. Ollie and Maud are religious, in a sort of smug, white-wine pantheist way where they praise God “for exalting us above all animals.” They exude positivity; they shudder delicately when expletives issue forth from the mouths of their cloddish guests. The dynamic is beautifully set forth by Howarth and Vacirca.

The question of belief  is tossed up for perusal, with predictable dissent. “Just the bare facts!” as Joff will later say of something that proves in the end elusive. But in the course of an evening interrupted by fantastical meteorological disturbances, something curious happens. The intersection at which the couples collide gradually becomes a corner where the couples’ belief systems (or habits of disbelief) are blurred, and even seem to trade.

McAlear’s production uses dance and movement to physicalize the inexpressibly mysterious devolution of the evening. Perhaps it’s simpler to say that Ollie and Maud aren’t quite the couple they present on the surface; their faith in the power of faith, and mind expansion, gets a demonstration, a conjuring turn you might say, and goes horribly awry.

The event and its terrible consequences start with a kind of exorcism, as the heavens continue to split open and pour down. Gruber’s design, an ingeniously mobile construction of light and projection, hangs over the house like a kind of ominous supernatural thatching.

It’s watching over excellent performances, and the perplexing, nervy experience provided by the play. I’m hoping you’ll see it, and explain it further to me.


The Believers

Theatre: MadFandango Theatre Collective, in the Roxy Performance Series

Written by: Bryony Lavery

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Nadien Chu, Nathan Cuckow, Patrick Howarth, Gianna Vacirca

Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Boulevard

Running: through March 19

Tickets: 780-453-2440,

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