By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The opening image of Freaky Green Eyes is a girl poised on a diving board, about to take the plunge.
In Emma Houghton’s solo show, an artful stage adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 2003 powerfully dark ‘young adult’ thriller, it’s a striking metaphor for a coming-of-age story. In Houghton’s a captivating performance, Franky takes a deep dive, as they say, into her past, a watery medium where memories have to be stripped of camouflage and re-assembled, in order to float.
It’s moving from “a known territory to an unknown” thinks Houghton, “from a place where people know you to a place where people only think they know you.” And vice versa, as we discover along with Franky in the course of Chantelle Hans’s production (presented in association with Punctuate! and Fringe Theatre): a place where you know people to a place where you realize you only thought you knew them.
Beyata Hackborn’s clever design of hanging photos is a veritable underwater memory gallery, set in shimmering motion by Tori Morrison’s projections and Kat Evans’ lighting. There are blurry family portraits, oddly angled photos of pale blank walls and stairs, smudgy close-ups of moments or unidentifiable details, the kind that memory toys with and won’t let go. They seem to appear and fade, change shape.
And Franky, as conjured by Houghton, hustles through that world, looking for clarity. She populates it, too, with her little eight-year-sister Samantha, her artist mom, and her dad, a star football player turned star sportscaster. She adores him. And he calls the shots; he is the assignment editor, so to speak, of all decisions about family life.
Houghton captures in such an appealing way Franky’s amusingly deadpan teen wit in describing, in a rush of words, her life. For our benefit she describes the big, expansive “post-modern” house they occupy, thanks to dad, as having “modular units instead of rooms.” At smart 15 she’s both knowing and innocent. Her perspective has been sharpened by a near-rape at a drunken party early in the play. Her inner resistor and ally, Freaky Green Eyes, has been unleashed, sticks up for her, and “saves my life.” Our heroine revels in her new sense of control.
And it’s Freaky Green Eyes who is her inner voice of dissent when the family starts to disintegrate. Her mom, whom Franky accuses of having a “stapled-on smile,” grows ”tense and fidgety.” And she’s away from the family more and more. Is it abandonment, as dad says, or escape, as Franky comes, at some subterranean Freaky Green Eyes level, to suspect?
“Why are you building a second life?” Franky demands. “Your mother is supposed to worry about you, not the other way around.”
Franky is used to taking her cues from dad, a veritable repository of sports jargon about team spirit, fight or flight, fight fight fight, and all that. And gradually, the story takes on OJ Simpson contours when mom vanishes altogether. It’s a sinister mystery that Freaky Green Eyes urges Franky to de-construct.
The moments between between Franky and her little sister, between teenager and child, are one of the particular delights of an absorbing evening. In those scenes, where Franky has to play consoling mom in the absence of the real one, Franky and Freaky Green Eyes improvise together, the former with less and less conviction. Houghton is very skilled at this, at differentiating the characters with minimal but telling adjustments in voice and body language. Mom emerges, too, calm but wary.
To me the lab mic that artificially modulates Houghton’s voice, light as it is, for male characters is an idea that should be revisited. A case can be made for the artificiality of male-ness, I guess, in a memory play. But the effect is jarring, and quite unpersuasively grotesque, which colours the mystery from the start and doesn’t seem owned by Franky.
The show, the production, and Houghton’s performance, though, create a vivid and suspenseful world in which our vision darkens as the domestic mystery unravels. It’s an evocation, scary and irreversible, of the moment on the diving board when we look at our family in a different light, from the outside, as actual people. And we find ourselves, our inner Freaky, in doing it.
Freaky Green Eyes
Fringe Spotlight Series
Adapted by: Emma Houghton from the Joyce Carol Oates novel
Directed by: Chantelle Han
Starring: Emma Houghton
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Jan. 21
Tickets: tiered ticketing and offer-what-you-will, fringetheatre.ca.