(Left to right) Kyle Bailey, Alexander Thomas in Stephen Joffe’s Letters to Annabelle. Photo by John Gundy.
Last night, I took in Stephen Joffe’s new play, Letters to Annabelle, at the MAY Cafe, premiering during the Fringe festival. The Fringe offers around 100 theatrical events, all of them now running at venues across the city. But Letters to Annabelle stands out, for several reasons. When the play starts, you think you are about to watch a sentimental cliché. But rather quickly, conventional characters grow more complex, there are twists and turns, the mood grows darker, and a mature narrative opens seductively, like a poisonous blossom.
The play is staged in a real bar, so you can order drinks, as well as food. The atmosphere of the MAY Cafe adds beautifully to the ambiance of the work. Even better, lovely dance girls loll about the room in filmy lingerie and negligees, and piano music fills us with cheer. Soon the audience feels part of the play’s fabric. Director Yehuda Fisher knows pacing and he allows solid actors to listen to their instincts. The work unfolds both briskly and slowly, creating its own rhythm.
As noted, Letters to Annabelle begins as a familiar story. It’s the end of World War I. A young handsome Canadian soldier, Pt. Liam Crane, well played by Kyle Bailey, returns to a bar in Montreal. There he searches for a girl, the beautiful Annabelle, played by the vivacious Anne van Leeuwen. Although they met only for a short time, Annabelle remains the love of Crane’s life, a treasure in his memory.
In Montreal, Pt. Crane questions the bartender and owner, Louis-Andre, but finds no girl named Annabelle. Louis-Andre is philosophical, gruff; evasive. The actor Alexander Thomas gives us Louis-Andre, a grand mix of sly negotiator, gentlemanly manners, and a generous heart. As with all in this play, nothing is as it seems, and we begin to see the more sinister aspects of the bartender’s pragmatism. This is one of those noteworthy characters that a gifted actor can awaken, and Alexander Thomas rises to the occasion. He both enchants and repels.
Pt. Crane’s quest for Annabelle is stalled by his predicament. The soldier has empty pockets, bad memories of the war, and secrets of his own. Louis-Andre supplies him with food, clothes, shelter, and employs him for ‘errands’. One of the bar’s entertainers, a girl named Maggie May (Vanessa Trenton), in fact, a childhood acquaintance of Crane, tries to help him solve the mystery that surrounds Annabelle. Trenton is very good in this part. She knows how to put on a bright face, while hiding her own heart, information, and obsessions.
Letters to Annabelle is a well-crafted thriller, in fact, a film-noir written for the stage. Playwright Stephen Joffe pays attention to every detail, and as the mystery unfolds, the audience knows they are in the hands of a careful writer. We fall willingly under his spell, as he closes his velvet fist around us.
Joffe is a diverse, interesting, and accomplished artist. He has acted since his youth, is presently the lead singer of a successful band, Birds of Bellswoods, and he writes beautifully. But what makes him unique is that he does all of it with astonishing skill. As an actor, he has the potential for true greatness. And his writing demonstrates an economy and virility that most would not attempt.
Without a doubt, play writing is the most difficult of the literary art forms. Even a small play can have a hundred moving parts and each must coordinate with the other to form a unified story. Information must be delivered seamlessly so that all of it is heard and understood by a live audience. Any good playwright knows it is hard as hell to take a worn out story, make it new, give it depth, and surprise an audience. And that’s what Stephen Joffe has managed to do with Letters for Annabelle. One feels he could easily turn out a screenplay for a movie that would have broad appeal.
I’ve seen Stephen Joffe sing, perform in a band, act in plays, and I’ve attended his plays, performed by other actors. Clearly, Mr. Joffe has an abundance of talent. But even more than that, there is a fascinating perspective that travels through his written work. The playwright operates from a vantage beyond his years. He looks boyish and innocent, but there’s too much experience in his eyes. And what he has observed surfaces in his use of language, its music, and the way he deploys it.
The author of Letters to Annabelle should be congratulated on his success. It was no easy task to get this drama up and running, and the entire crew should be celebrated. This includes Panfish Productions, Director/Producer Yehuda Fisher; and Assistant Producer Ashley Groves.
Other Members of the Crew:
Lindsay Lowes, Stage Manager; Sydney LaForme, Assistant Director, Assistant Choreographer; Melanie Nablo, Assistant Stage Manager; Danielle Oswald, Choreographer; David Robert Leslie, Fight Choreographer, Knox Harter, Assistant Choreographer; Melanie Garros, Set/Props Designer; Sarah Arrunategui, Costume Designer; Sadie Johnston, Assistant Sound Designer; John Gundy, Photography; Dahlia Katz, Graphic Design; Jesse Fraser, Pianist; Burlesque Performers: Knox Harter, Esther DeVille, Miss Reason.
Special praise to the MAY Cafe for its wonderful hospitality. It’s places like MAY Cafe that make Toronto a great city.
Photos by John Gundy
© copyright by Burke Campbell. All rights reserved.