Throughout the month of August, 4th Line Theatre is presenting the world premiere of award-winning playwright Judith Thompson’s newest play Who Killed Snow White?
Directed with brilliance and sensitivity by 4th Line’s managing artistic director Kim Blackwell, it is possibly the theatre company’s boldest production in its 27-year history.
Heart wrenching, haunting, and torn from today’s headlines, Who Killed Snow White? could be both the most controversial and most memorable show ever to be staged at the Winslow Farm in Millbrook.
If you’re a long-time patron of 4th Line Theatre, get ready to leave your expectations behind because Who Killed Snow White? breaks the mold of everything that has come before it. It’s not a historical play. It’s not a comedy with moments of pathos. It’s not a drama filled with good-natured laughs.
In fact, there is nothing whimsical about Who Killed Snow White? at all. It is a modern, real-life horror story ripped from a reality that’s played out daily in the back yards, school halls, and bedrooms of youth in communities across the world.
Who Killed Snow White? tells the story of 15-year-old Serena (Grace Thompson) through the eyes of the people who know her, primarily her mother Ramona (Cynthia Ashperger). A nice girl raised by two loving parents, Serena is perfectly normal, but is eventually singled out by the kids in her school to be the victim of their torment.
After a number of years of senseless bullying, she finds strength alongside her two pals Riley (Tom Keat) and Fancy (Cassandra Guthrie). But in the world of technology and the growing cult of brutal misogyny, things go very wrong for Serena, stripping away her innocence, her security, and changing her world forever.
Although the dramatic realization of Who Killed Snow White? is complex, the plot doesn’t go beyond what we’ve seen in the past. It’s a familiar story we’ve seen in dramas many times, and one we can recognize from our own life and from those of people around us. Where the drama differs from what we’ve seen in the past is in its presentation.
By exposing the different shades of greys of difficult subjects such as alienation, cyber bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, Judith Thompson manages to weave together a tapestry of viewpoints and social commentary through her characters, reflecting the modern dystopia we read about in the news every day.
It’s Reteah Parsons. It’s Brock Turner. It’s Harvey Wienstein and the #metoo movement. It’s a world where a beloved sitcom dad can turn out to be a serial rapist, where the president of the United States can get away with bragging about sexual assault.
All of this makes up the world of Who Killed Snow White? . It’s a world that’s difficult to face, but one the audience will fully recognize.
At first glance, you could be worried the subject matter of Who Killed Snow White? might become a glorified stage version of a teen drama like Degrassi Junior High. The typical after-school special of yesteryear was nothing more than an over-the-top allegory created to teach teenagers a message.
This is far from what Who Killed Snow White? is. Thompson avoids the melodramatic tropes of teen dramas by targetting an adult audience. It avoids being preachy and it’s not written for the kids. Kids don’t need this story because they already know it — they are already living it in their schools and on the internet.
Instead, Who Killed Snow White? is presented to the older generation so they perhaps will begin to understand the toxic world their children and grandchildren inhabit. It will open their eyes to the realities of the sophisticated struggles young people face every day.
At the heart of Who Killed Snow White? is actress Cynthia Ashperger, who gives a commanding performance as Serena’s mother Ramona. A woman grieving for her child, Cynthia has an incredible control over the outdoor performance space at Winslow Farm, making a strong personal connection with the audience immediately and to the point where audience members feel that she is talking directly to them.
With her opening lines, Cynthia immediately squashes any audience expectation there will be anything to laugh about in this show. She bares her soul to the audience like an open wound, and reveals the painful drama of her daughter in a way that only a mother in anguish can give. It’s an incredible performance by an amazing actress.
The play also features a trio of wonderful young actors; Tom Keat as Riley, Cassandra Guthrie as Fantasia (“Fancy”), and Grace Thompson as Serena. Cassandra and Tom seem to shine through their performances, almost like sparkly bookends to Grace, who fades in their shadows. With big personalities, these two performers are scene stealers.
Meanwhile, the character of Serena doesn’t seem to stand out much at all. She is just a normal kid with normal looks and a normal attitude. But perhaps that is the point of the charaacter. She really is any girl from any town. She’s our daughter, our niece, our granddaughter, our neighbour. All the girls we know can be Serena.
In her big final moments of the show, Grace manages to decimate the audience with a passionate monologue that echos through the valley beyond Winslow Farm. It represents the cries of the victims of sexual violence, and it’s a powerful dramatic moment that doesn’t hold back.
Who Killed Snow White? also reveals many different voices as a way to create a full discussion of the times in which our children live. Mark Hiscox plays Serena’s father Jay, who struggles with being unable to stop his daughter’s tormentors. Maja Ardel plays Fancy’s Aunt Babe, who believes in the status quo and bowing to social norms. Christian Lloyd plays Si, a local police officer whose examples of male testosterone corrupt the boys he helped raise.
I also want to take a moment to praise the two young men in the show: Steven Vlahos who plays Pratt, and Andrei Preda who plays his brother Dodge. Judith Thompson’s creation of these characters is unique; instead of creating stock villains, she gives these talented actors characters who are three dimensional and filled with conflicting emotions.
With young men being so easily vilified in today’s mass media (often for good reason), it is refreshing to find a character like Dodge in Who Killed Snow White? . Although flawed, he is a good kid at heart who honestly tries to do the right thing but finds himself trapped between loyalty, family, and the myths of masculinity in which he has been indoctrinated. With Dodge, Thompson shows that not all young men are out to rape and conquer.
On the other end of the spectrum is Steven Vlahos as Pratt. I can’t imagine the preparation that Steven must go through, performance after performance, to put himself into the mindset of a young man who is so smug, so insensitive, and so destructive.
Although his character is the poster boy for everything wrong with toxic masculinity, somehow Thompson manages to hint at another side to Pratt, one that lies somewhere between privileged sociopath and a screwed-up kid without the emotional maturity to understand his actions. Pratt is a completely repugnant character, but one that Steven brings alive almost too well in what cannot be an easy performance.
Who Killed Snow White? is completed by a haunting original score by local maestro Justin Hiscox, inspired choreography by Monica Dotter, and beautifully inspired costumes by Meredith Hubbard — who brilliantly dresses all the performers in pristine whites.
Audiences attending Who Killed Snow White? should know what they are getting into before they attend the show. 4th Line Theatre acknowledges trigger warnings within the show, and workers from the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre will be on site for each performance to provide support if needed. It’s also worth noting that 4th Line does not recommend the show for anyone under the age of 14.
Some people feel that summer theatre should consist of light and breezy comedies to enjoy on a nice evening, and avoid hard-hitting subjects or emotional turmoil. If this is your opinion, than perhaps Who Killed Snow White? is not for you.
However, truly good theatre challenges its audience. It’s relevant to today’s society, starts discussions, and reveal truths about our world we may be too scared to look at. It is raw, controversial, uncomfortable, brave, and honest.
In this regard, Who Killed Snow White? is extremely good theatre, and it could be the most important show you’ll see in the Kawarthas this year. This is the kind of show that wins awards and changes lives. That is why you should be going to see this show.
Who Killed Snow White? runs from Mondays to Saturdays until August 25th at the Winslow Farm in Millbrook. Shows start at 6 p.m. Tickets are $38 for adults and $32 for youth and can be purchased by phone at 705-932-4445, online at www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca, or at 4th Line Theatre box office in Millbrook at 4 Tupper Street and in Peterborough at the Peterborough Museum and Archives at 300 Hunter Street East.