By Sarah Haley

One doesn’t often consider Ottawa as the backdrop for a fairy tale, yet Skeleton Key’s Swan River attempts to do just that. With its enchanting set design and natural backdrop, Swan River sets the stage for a tale that is both familiar and unfamiliar. An intricately woven piece, Swan River grapples with international themes that cross generational lines. Though it does mark a successful and sophisticated venture into children’s theatre, Swan River is a bit of a let-down because of its shifting focus and unclear conclusions.

Siblings Pen and Cob draw their audience in by performing a skit about their town, Swan River. Legend has it that a swan shed her wings to bath in the moonlight in human form. With a nod to Classic mythology and fables, a hunter spies the swan and steals her wings. Pen and Cob finish the skit, take their bows and wander off the stage. The audience follows, no longer spectators, but voyeurs into the story of Pen and Cob and their search for the missing wings, weaving a tale through the Ottawa landscape.

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Photography by Susie Shapiro

Swan River is a metatheatrical piece that is both conscious and unconscious of its role as a play. Pen and Cob stage a play, aware of the audience, and their exuberant overacting is a zealous reminder that this is indeed a play within a play. Their acting method serves them well in this scene, but the continued effort for childlike overacting becomes dull and pandering when the characters retreat back behind the Fourth Wall, as it were.

The musicians, on the other hand, are entirely conscious of the audience and guide us through the play with clever physicality and expressive silence. The role of the musicians is an important one: not only do they develop the atmosphere and hint at the themes of the play, but they interact with the audience and lead them through the different sets. They are the cohesive bond between the performance and the audience, and in a play that is site-specific, this is very important.

Taking place on the grounds of the Remic Rapids in the west end of Ottawa, the backdrop of rushing rapids and honking geese makes this an apt venue. The set itself covers a large part of the grounds in the park, as the audience tours through the different playing areas. From Pen and Cob’s ‘stage’ to the intricate dinner table, each performance space is carefully curated to tell a story in its own right, like small snapshots into a larger story. The use of natural surroundings to support the story is cohesive and clever and adds to the whimsy of the tale.

Despite the beautiful and fantastical sets, Swan River can do with some paring down. In this site-specific performance, there are set changes abound and each requires the audience to relocate. While this is an engaging and creative way of telling the story, the constant changes detract from the story. It is difficult to come to grips with the story without being tired of constantly moving from one set to another. Despite this overindulgence, narratively, this play does a fantastic job understanding its audience without condescending.

So often, works created for children lack depth and meaning but Swam River encourages it. It grapples with difficult and existential issues like loss and belonging with surprising ease and fluency. The great disappointment, however, is that it abandons that emotional development of the young characters for a much less satisfying ending. Pen spends the performance believing that she is the missing swan, but the swan is actually her mother. The narrative switches from a young child trying to determine her place in the world to a mother finding her identity. This is a big problem, considering the target audience. This production would be more effective if it decided to further the character development of the children rather than abandoning it for character development of the mother.

Swan River builds itself like a bildungsroman, a coming of age story. However, the conclusion brings that development to a sharp halt. This production is enthralling and fantastical, but it is caught up in the fairy tale genre without adhering to it. The result of the search for the missing wings is unsettling and cuts away from the story it begins to portray. While the conclusion to the quest is unsurprising, it feels like the wrong choice. As Pen and Cob’s mother finds her wings and joins her family of swans, Pen and Cob follow, paddling behind in a canoe. While it is a tender moment, it illustrates a clear division between the swans and the children. The lack of character development makes the interpretation of the conclusion unclear. The reverberations of the play’s end encourage uncomfortable readings about motherhood and abandonment.

This production is, by and large, a success, though it disappoints in the follow-through of its storytelling. It claims to be a story of unconditional love, but the conclusion does not realistically support these claims. Most disappointing, perhaps, is the shift away from the childhood coming of age themes. Sacrificing the development of a child’s character is an unwise decision in a production created for children. Skeleton Key’s Swan River is a whimsical and intriguing piece of live performance, but the story itself has not yet found its wings.

Swan River

Presented by the International Children’s Festival May 11-15

Story by Kate Smith*
Dramaturgy and Direction by Emily Pearlman
Featuring the work of artistic collaborators Tzeitel Abrego*, Tony Adams, Madeleine Boyes-Manseau, David DaCosta, John Doucet, Jacqui Du Toit, Caterina Fiorindi, Even Gilchrist, Vanessa Imeson, Scott Irving, Kel MacDonald, John Nolan*, Franco Pang, Joseph Pauls, Mitchel Rose*, Angela Schleihauf, Grace Scorrar, Marc Walter and Laura Wheeler

*The participation of these Artists are arranged by permission of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association under the provisions of the Dance Opera Theatre Policy (DOT).


Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.

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