The fascination of escape: Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, a review

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs (Stage 17, Roxy on Gateway)

This show premiered in the Roxy Performance Series in January. It’s back at the Roxy on Gateway (aka Stage 17) for the Fringe. Here’s my original review:

The international stage repertoire has no shortage of shows about the entertainment world and its fractious backstage — where dreamers and achievers, stars and wannabes, artsy bright-idea types and antsy bottom-line producers, collide.

Still, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs is, I strongly suspect, the only show of the season in which new play development, and rehearsals, involve a handcuffed performer sticking her head in a bucket of water, and emerging with a gasp, triumphantly dangling the cuffs.

The fascinating new play, by magician/ illusionist/ playwright Ron Pearson, stars a stunning performer with an equally improbable collection of those qualifier slashes, actor/ escape artist Miranda Allen, in a production directed by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

It opens in the dark, to the sound of water and a ticking clock. Together, they equal suspense. In the show that follows, we meet an entertainer who finds her place in showbiz and her true self in life holding her breath underwater, breaking free of chains and ropes and locks of every kind, and counting down to deadlines. It makes me nervous even thinking about it. 

Uniquely qualified for the role, Allen plays the real-life Edwardian escape artist Minerva Vano, whose prowess (and radical novelty as a woman showing it off) made her a sensation — and a rival of Harry Houdini. And Pearson’s script, which springboards from the gallery of characters provided by history, all of them male except her, has an organic feminist momentum to it.

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

It’s framed by flashbacks to performances and backstage encounters conjured under hypnosis, a new turn-of-the-century fad. Plagued by crippling mid-career panic and anxiety — in that line of work, who wouldn’t be? —  Minerva consults a hypnotist (the chameleonic Richard Lee Hsi, in one of his multiple roles). And under his prompting, her memory coughs up flashbacks from a career built on an extraordinary talent for escaping shackles, of one kind or another.

What is it you do? wonders the hypnotist. “I escape from things,” says Minerva. And then, onstage and with audience participation to tie the ropes, tighten the straps, and lock the locks, she does. 

Allen and Lee Hsi deftly create a performance style that nods to the period and the vintage escapes that are its source material. Allen’s Minerva doesn’t have a contemporary street hustle and edge about her as she deals with her audience volunteers: there’s a whiff of risqué about her bustling cheerfulness, but only a whiff. Radicalism still wears button shoes, a high-topped dress, and a pleasant smile in 1905.

Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As all the men in Minerva’s world, including the suave and threatening Houdini, a villain in a tux, Lee Hsi creates a variety of 19th century showbiz men, from the patronizing to the sinister. They don’t realize that the era is changing, right under their well-shod feet. 

Minerva’s signature act and greatest hit was escaping from a water-filled barrel while chained (while it’s not re-enacted, it’s evoked). For run-of-the-mill claustrophobes such as myself, this is of course the ultimate nightmare, followed closely by jumping off bridges while chained. But for Minerva, who’s addicted to the adrenalin rush from escaping as the clock ticks, panic is a horrifying new development.

We see Minerva with her first husband Willie, a n’er-do-well touring magician with a certain chipper, wheedling, ever-hopeful charm and the financial acumen of a gnat, as Lee Hsi plays him. And Minerva’s first escapes are from flea-bag hotels in the middle of the night, to avoid paying. “We’re gonna hit the big time,” Willie is fond of saying. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, it’s Willie who suggests an “escape act” involving water and a locked barrel. He needs, he says, “something no one else is doing.” Minerva is game, but wonders “so how exactly do you escape?” And he cries “details!” Idea guys are like that. He reads the racing form while Minerva hits the (rehearsal) bucket.

Tessa Stamp’s design for Moss’s production, lit by Scott Peters, is responsive to the conjuring that goes into magic-making and escape. The fore-stage has an alluring simplicity: a trunk, a chair, hanging bulbs. They’re the props of a magic that has to start from nothing to be persuasive, and transcends predictable human possibility. The backstage, shrouded behind a black veil, is lit by a dim chandelier. The combination of preternatural skill and mystery, what is lit and what is in darkness, is at the heart of the show.

And by the time Allen is escaping from a triple-knotted noose or an impossibly tightened straitjacket in three minutes — will she? won’t she? is this the one performance where the straitjacket wins? — you feel you’re holding your breath. Artfully framed as a story, the play relies on that escalation of tension and sense of wonder.

For all that, and the big reveal of a mystery at the end — it’s a wowsa! — there’s a certain heart-on-sleeve innocence about Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Bonds and escapes, it points out, come in many challenges, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a man’s world, after all.

It invites you to cheer when Minerva unlocks thumb cuffs “used by Scotland Yard.” And, equally, you’re invited to cheer when Minerva declares her intention to have a solo escapist career, or resists sexist advances from a thuggish manager in an expensive coat. It wants to be inspiring in the time-honoured, applause-magnet way that escape acts work. And it is.



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