NS reviews

Reviews of theatre and art in Nova Scotia and beyond

YAGA: Witches Get Real in Suspenseful Halloween Mystery

Wayne Burns, Martha Irving and Hilary Scott in Yaga, at the Highland Arts Theatre, Sydney, to Oct. 31. (Chris Walzak)

Prepare to be spooked and entertained by Yaga at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney through Sunday.

This two-hour drama is both a supernatural Halloween story rooted in the Slavic legend of the witch Baba Yaga and a mystery story with a fast-paced, engaging plot.

The well-written, Canadian play by Kat Sandler (Sucker, Punch Up, Mustard) – first staged at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2019 – is steeped in atmosphere by director Annie Valentina and her three-actor cast.

Nova Scotia actress Martha Irving is unforgettable as the sensual, scary Yaga. She bursts with carnal energy, female power and – at times – a delicious comedy.

Irving also plays Katherine, a smart and sexy 60-year-old professor of osteology at a small-town university where the wealthy student Henry goes missing. That’s after Henry interviewed her and had sex with her. (Don’t go to this play if sexuality or the F-word offend you; definitely go if you like a refreshing woman’s point of view on sex and revenge.)

When P.I. Charlie Rapp (Wayne Burns) comes to town to find Henry for his family, he badgers the town’s attractive, young Detective Carson (Hilary Scott) into working with him.

Irving, Scott and Burns play multiple roles (which makes great sense as you’ll learn later). Burns is both Henry and Rapp, both smart young men who are more charming than rakish in their fondness for women. Irving, whose parts were played by Seana McKenna in the 2019 premiere, is also wonderful as Janice, a hard-done-by waitress with a black sense of humour and Elena, the crazed, vodka-loving, Slavic grandmother.

Hilary Scott ably defines Detective Carson as well as five other young female characters. All three actors concoct the sexuality, vitality and tension among their people.

Wayne Burns as private investigator Charlie Rapp cozies up to Hilary Scott’s policewoman Carson in Yaga. (Chris Walzak)

The crime gets solved with a startling ending. In hindsight the mystery’s elements are a tangle but no matter. There is a chilling over-arcing storyline as you will find out.

Annie Valentina is adept at pacing, moving and unifying her actors and sets a blood-chilling atmosphere with her creative team of set, costume and prop designer Kayla Cormier, lighting designer Alison Crosby, also the stage manager which is demanding in this production in terms of multiple costume changes, and sound designer Jordan Palmer.

The set a stand of birch trees (some moveable) is lit brightly for interior scenes on platforms and other times a murky forest with a blood red light. Before this two-hour, 15-minute show (apart from intermission) got its well-deserved standing ovation Sunday, Wesley Colford, the HAT’s artistic and executive director, announced the theatre had raised 73.8 per cent of its goal for Radical Access 2, the program that allows the theatre to offer free admission.

Free admission is a great deal for a full-length, satisfying, professional show. It runs tonight, Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, both at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets must be booked at the HAT box office (open 12 to 6 Monday to Friday); at (902) 565-3637 or online at: https: tickets. highlandartstheatre.com

NOTE: There are two other promising Halloween shows, to be seen shortly by this scribe, on right now: Neptune Theatre’s production of the thriller The Woman in Black to Nov. 14 (https://www.neptunetheatre.com) and The Villains Theatre’s Hänsel und Gretel in der Garten von Edible Horrors: a Terrible Parable, an outside, fireside performance at Shubie Park, 30 John Breton Drive, Dartmouth, presented by North Barn Theatre. Tickets are PWYC at tickethalifax.com. Shows are at 7:30 and 9 p.m. through Sunday.

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