Review: To Hell in a Handbasket

Brianna McFarlane

          I first saw To Hell in a Handbasket in its initial stages at this year’s Fresh Meat Festival where it was clear that creator Madeleine Boyes-Manseau had stumbled upon something that had potential to grow into something big. Now having seen it’s (somewhat) final product, extended and with the directorial contributions by Brad Long, at the 2014 Ottawa Fringe Festival it’s safe to say that this seed yielded a plentiful harvest. Certainly one of the strongest one woman shows I’ve seen at the Fringe, this is a story that explores one character’s inability to emotionally connect with hardly anyone or anything around her.

To Hell in a Handbasket is piece about two sisters growing up with two completely different attitudes towards the world. Joy, Boyes-Manseau, is rather unfeeling and hardened whereas her sister is all sensitivity and compassion. We listen to Joy detail all the ways in which she creates barriers between herself and others, clearly seeking validation as she implores each individual audience member. Trying out an experiment suggested to her by her nephew to see whether negative and positive intentions and thoughts can affect matter (in this case two jars of rice respectively labelled ‘I love you’ and ‘You fool’), we see Joy’s marble exterior begin to crack after having been dealt a rather unexpected blow.

Studio 311 on the third floor of Ottawa U’s Theatre Department is a small and intimate space that is perfect for this production. What makes this space even more compelling is the use of the alleyway configuration. Further, the stark fluorescent lights against the tile of the floor give the space a distinctly clinical feel, not to mention the staged hospital bed and wheel chair. There isn’t a lot of room for movement, but this is perhaps because this is a piece about stillness.

Boyes-Manseau is an incredible presence on stage. When she looks at you, she looks at you. She’s not merely reciting lines, when she asks you a question you simply feel the askance in her eyes. This performer is effective in completely drawing you into her world on stage and absorbing you into her emotional journey. I appreciate where Boyes-Manseau and Long have taken this piece and both the character and her story are much more fully fleshed.

This piece could go slightly further in the development of just a few elements. One being the characters’ relationship with their father as the significance of it could be explored especially with the monologue towards the end; and the second being just a clarification of the resolution of the piece or even perhaps a more explicit statement that there is no resolution as the very ending moment, though powerful, leaves a few loose threads. These small adjustments might be able to carve out more clearly a few more facets to this already multi-faceted play.

Overall, To Hell in a Handbasket offers its audience an extremely intimate and almost uncomfortable experience with a performer on stage. Its’ story makes you question your ability to love and your relationships with others and at the same time makes you feel incredibly sympathetic for a character who, in a desperate attempt not to feel any pain, tries so hard to alienate herself from the world. A definite must-see, I think there are great things in store for this production.