John | Outhouse Theatre Co & Seymour Centre

Image by Clare Hawley

A young couple are taking some time together to heal after a rough patch in their relationship. They book a stay at a cozy bed and breakfast in historic Gettysburg and that might be all it is. It also might be an entrance to another dimension, or a house haunted by Civil War soldiers, or an elaborate game of make-believe constructed by owner Kitty. Who’s to really say who’s in charge and what it all means?

There is something very strange operating in the cracks and crevices of Annie Baker’s script; where rooms disappear, pianos play themselves, and a mysterious whisper walks amongst the guests. At just under three hours, John is an epic, immersive, atmospheric production about the forces of the universe that bind us together, sometimes hidden and sometimes misinterpreted, but always working.

When Kitty (Belinda Giblin) opens the red velvet curtains on her living room, there’s a high theatrical quality to it, a bit like beginning a puppet show, a bit like swinging open a doll’s house. Jeremy Allen’s set design it outstanding in the detail of pattern and texture of Kitty’s cluttered BnB full of dolls, decorations, and porcelain figurines on every surface. A miniature juke box pumps Melanie Herbert’s sound design of classical ambient music day and night adding to the feeling of comfort and perpetuation the house holds. Things only feel unusual under Veronique Benett’s lighting design when lamps compete with moonlight or eerie, unnatural colours slash across the stage like a panel from a comic book, unknown spectres lying in wait.

Ostensibly, John is about Elias (James Bell) and Jenny (Shuang Hu) attempting to reconcile their relationship while staying at Kitty’s house. There’s distrust, resentment, and a lot of petty fighting but Kitty is open and accepting, willing to lend an ear when either of the couple need another opinion. Kitty and her friend Genevieve (Maggie Blinco) also have some unusual interests in spirits, Cthulhu, and the haunting presence of the past which they pepper into otherwise normal conversations.

Craig Baldwin’s direction makes excellent use of silence in conversational missteps, lapses in memory, and the lurking potential of an empty room. Moments of unexpected discovery, like Kitty’s husband George or her speaking another language, are well timed to offset the building tension of the production’s slow and subtle story. Baldwin strikes a precise balance between the banal hyper-naturalism of Elias and Jenny and the opaque unease of Kitty’s world.

The cast of four present the marathon production very well. Giblin is exceptional as Kitty, playing into both the innocent inquisitiveness of a grandmotherly figure and a somewhat witchy, secretive quality that is indistinguishable as deliberately deceptive or simply private. The incremental reveal of Kitty’s quirks are delivered brilliantly with Giblin invested in every moment of interaction between her guests and her house. Hu as Jenny proves the most capable sparring partner in her navigation of politeness and incredulity while Bell’s Elias is more sceptical. Elias and Jenny’s relationship is minutely demoralising with a long history feeding every snap. Their dynamic is brittle and frustrating which makes its dissolution in front of Genevieve’s blasé approach to life extremely satisfying.

In Baker’s script, much is left unsaid and unexplored. Like Elias’s stories, it’s all set-up, no resolution. But the mystery, if there is one at all, is so compelling and produced with such fascination for the unexplainable from Baldwin’s team that the desire for absolute pay-off falls away and leaves instead mere speculation.

John is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from September 19th – October 12th

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