You wouldn’t think the words “playful” and “Halifax Explosion” could ever go together.
However, Zuppa Theatre takes a witty, playful and super-lively approach to a unique retelling of the story of the disaster at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to Dec. 12.
Amazingly, At This Hour is accessible to both deaf and blind or partially sighted audiences with the pairing of hearing and deaf actors, with Brian Riley’s great sound design and with surtitles and images projected onto sails. This style also enlivens the show for a hearing audience. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Directed by Ben Stone and created by the company, At This Hour is a “docu-drama investigation” into the causes behind the Dec. 6, 1917, disaster that killed approximately 2,000 people. It also left 1,000 people blind with one in 50 Haligonians suffering eye damage from shattered glass and flying debris.
Zuppa collaborated with the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB), founded out of the disaster. It drew on the history of what happened at the Gottingen Street School of the Deaf and engaged actors from the Signs of the Maritimes Deaf Theatre Troupe.
Actors Mary Fay Coady, Lesley Smith, Sharleen Kalayil and partially sighted consultant, writer and actor Phillipa Colman each team up with a deaf actor to create four friendly duos in bright, identical costumes representing a character or type of person. The story is told simultaneously in a highly-articulated, wry human voice and in ASL using Catherine MacKinnon’s adaptation of the script.
The actors race around describing the harbour from the nets keeping out submarines in the south to the Bedford Basin full of anchored ships in the north. They set the scenario for how the Belgian relief ship SS Imo, exiting Halifax, got into the wrong shipping lane and collided with the overloaded, French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc, entering Halifax.
Every time Coady talks about marine rules of the road the entire cast breaks out into dance and beams at the audience. This show is full of cultural memes like the Law and Order theme.
The deaf actors are fantastic. Jim McDermott, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Elizabeth Morris and Alan Williams bring mega-watts of energy and sparkle to the show.
Their signing and facial expressions are highly emotive and engaging; their energy matches that of the hearing actors, who are all compelling. Everyone together reaches up to a lively, irreverent, story-telling style full of physicality.
At intermission the audience may see the glass eyes talked about in the show on display in the Museum’s excellent, haunting Halifax Explosion exhibit, just behind the performance area. This is where the emotional weight of the event is felt.
Zuppa Theatre uses verbatim text from transcripts of the inquiry into the disaster to examine who was to blame for the disaster, a question that’s never been answered. At This Hour, also based on Janet Maybee’s Aftershock, is a critique of the Canadian and British governments and the politics of the day.
The first act is perfect as a dramatic, informative telling for many audiences of differing ages and abilities. It would be a great set piece for the Museum. The second act, about what happened after the disaster, gets slightly bogged down in the political and the legal, lacking the narrative drive and climax of the first act.
At This Hour, created and written by the company, has an amazing team behind it and took two years to craft. Costumes are by Leesa Hamilton, surtitles (titles that are read high on the screen instead of below) by Anna Shepard, lighting by Benoit Gravel and set by Katherine Jenkins-Ryan. Musical direction is by Maja Packer.
At This Hour, which I saw as a preview so it may change, runs to Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are at: www.tickethalifax.com/events/116062215/at-this-hour
All audience members are required to provide proof of vaccination; masks must be worn at all times. . General seating. There will be a relaxed performance for people with sensory sensitivities on Dec. 9.
Zuppa offers touch tours before the show for anyone who wants to walk around and feel where everything is before the performance begins. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is wheelchair accessible. For more information, for assistance in purchasing tickets or for a half price or complimentary ticket for your seeing guide email email@example.com or call or text 902-489-9872.