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Post Productions Pulls Off A Thrilling Stunt With Staging Of Dark Comedy

Friday October 13th, 2023, 5:30pm


Photo: Kieran Potter.

As autumn returns, a local theatre company is creating suspense with their latest production.

Taking place at the Shadowbox Theatre (located at 103b – 1501 Howard Avenue,) Post Productions‘ staging of Martin McDonagh’s Hangman is underway. Having debuted on October 6, the play presents some unique circumstances and a shocking stunt that stands out in the thrilling dark comedy.

Presenting his stories with a unique voice, it’s the third play Post has put on by the playwright.

“Michael K. Potter and I are always looking for new and exciting plays to produce,” said director/producer Fay Lynn. “This is one of the reasons we run the annual Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Over the past several years we’ve managed to find a few staple playwrights that are almost always guaranteed to intrigue us, and [McDonagh] is definitely one of them. Aside from being intelligently written, wickedly funny and full of interesting characters, Hangmen is a rather large and complicated script to tackle. But we love a challenge, and the timing seemed right to take this particular challenge on.”

Making its Windsor-Essex debut, Hangman focuses on complicated relationships. Taking place two years after hanging was stopped, former hangman Harry Wade (Joey Ouellette) helps his wife Alice (Cheri Scratch) run their pub in Oldham, England. Previously away while she oversaw the venue, the husband became one of his country’s top hangmen. Living a “normal” life again, Harry is soon confronted by several troubling developments.

Executing convicted killer James Hennessy with the help of assistant Syd Armfield (Shaun Mazzocca) two years prior, the hangman finds out they may have made a mistake. At the same time, journalist Derek Clegg (Cody Tersigni) wants to interview Harry about his previous career — something he prefers keeping private. At the same time, a menacing stranger named Peter Mooney (Luke Boughner) comes to town and charms the former hangman’s daughter Shirley (Rachel Hillis. When she goes missing during this chaos, a new concern arises: Does the disappearance have something to do with the mistaken hanging and real killer?

If that wasn’t enough, the play also contains a good ol’ fashioned (but safe) lynching.

“By far the most challenging part of this production was the live onstage hanging,” said Potter, who is a producer and plays Arthur. “Although it might seem difficult to believe, [Lynn] and I don’t have a lot of experience hanging people – at least not without the intent of killing them. We were extremely anxious about how to pull off the stunt safely, realistically and how much work would be involved in making it happen.”

With a lot to learn, Potter and Lynn received a lucky break. Magician Chris Philpott, who performed at the Shadowbox Theatre in early August, connected them with Ray Pierce. Experienced in rigging for stunts in TV and film, he also oversees the same at Disney parks around the world.

Along with local assistance from Great Lakes Supply, it helped the production run more smoothly.

“[Pierce] was a valuable resource,” said Potter. “I don’t know the proper words to fully explain how valuable his guidance and mentorship was throughout this process. He took the time to chat with us over phone, e-mail and text messages, reviewed [Lynn’s] drawings of the space, its measurements and our preliminary plans for how we thought the stunt could be done. He educated us about the major safety concerns and how to ensure the actor being hanged is never in any real danger; once we knew how to create the stunt safely, he helped us understand how we could also make it look good. The process of bringing this play to life would have been immeasurably more stressful without [Pierce’s] generosity.”

From there, carpenter Willy Lapain created the structure that supports the hanging. Adhering to safety guidelines, it had to be integrated with Lynn’s naturalistic stage design as well. Following this, it was up to four actors who each had a role in performing the stunt. As a result, they took part in drill rehearsals to memorize the choreography and ensure everything was done properly.

When it came to choosing actors in the first place, auditions started in April. Being a thriller with dramatic and darkly comedic elements, Posts searched for versatile actors who could shift tones within their performances. In addition, Potter and Lynn paid close attention to those with a natural understanding of each character, their relationships and how conversational rhythms needed to be heard for dialogue to work.

Although actors can be taught, having a team that understood immediately eliminated a lot of work.

“Two major elements I look for when casting any production are intuition and connection,” said Lynn. “Every actor who comes out to audition for a Post Productions play receives copies of the scenes they’ll be reading in advance, as well as a synopsis of the play and descriptions of the characters. We don’t expect the scenes to be memorized or the characterizations to be perfect, but we look for an understanding of the tone and rhythm of the show and we watch how the actors interact with each other. Building a production from the script to the stage is a process and it helps to start with a strong foundation where everyone gets along, respects each other and shares the same general vision of how to best tell the story as a team.”

These qualities were on full display when actors came together for Hangman. Enthusiastic about the material in general, those who participated were supportive of one another, willing to listen and play off their prospective castmates. This led to a group who could adapt to their surroundings and performances of those around them. In the end, six out of the play’s 11 actors are working with Post for the first time.

One cast member also used the opportunity to get back into the local theatre scene.

“The description of the show and characters drew me to audition,” said Mazzocca. “I haven’t read many plays or much of anything outside of parenting books since my son was born. So I didn’t know much about McDonagh other than he wrote that film that was nominated for some kind of award a few years back. It seemed interesting and I was itching to get back to some acting work and I felt like this was a project that I could sink my teeth into. The writing is so brilliant – I’ve found more to discover each week and it’s been really fun to play with.”

Even so, an unexpected challenge arose when the theatre company needed people to take part.

“We did run into a bit of a speed bump,” said Potter. “For whatever reason, nearly every theatre company in the area decided to produce male-heavy shows from September to November. We held our audition later than some of the other companies so many talented men had already been snatched up by other productions (and will no doubt be excellent in them.) One of the cold hard facts about the Windsor-Essex theatre industry is that for every talented male there are at least ten talented females. Hangmen only has two roles for women and most of the actors auditioning were women, so we looked into the possibility of gender-swapping some characters. Unfortunately our license prohibited it. In the end we ended up with the right actors for every role except that of Arthur, which I had to play.”

Being a group of friendly actors, the cast learnt a lot from their frequent interactions. It allowed them to discuss their roles, scene meanings and questions the production raises. Adding realism to their performances, they could also stay in character and improvise when things didn’t go as planned.

Scheduling a summer hiatus during rehearsals however, plenty of solo work was done as well.

“I was listening to various interviews with people from Manchester as a way to familiarize myself with the accent,” said Mazzocca. “There was an interview with a musician who stated that the music industry is haunted or something along those lines. I watched so many videos for that accent I forget who it was or what band they were from, but he had this very morbid perspective of the music industry and it sort of clicked with me that [Armfield] might feel haunted both in the “miscarriages of justice” and in the way he was treated by HARRY. I worked with this idea of [Armfield] being totally spooked by the first scene in the show, and it really helped inform the rest of the layers I was able to combine with that haunted element.”

Adding authenticity through this kind of research, Hangman also relies on its set. Designed by Lynn, the director built and painted it with some help from Maria Hausmann. This extended to set dressing, props and costumes. While creating a realistic and natural world for actors to live in, the director took suggestions from her cast as well. Having enjoyed locating and ordering vintage English pub decor, Lynn and Potter also borrowed a mounted fish from Scratch for the production.

Coming back to the writing, Potter believes the playwright’s tonal balance is what entertains audiences. Approaching heavy topics with dark humour, it’s something the cast worked hard at getting right. As a result, many have asked the producer if there’s something wrong with them for finding the play as funny as they did.

Either way, it’s translated to a successful run of shows.

The audience response has been overwhelmingly exuberant so far,” said Potter. “it’s more than I expected! I knew people would enjoy it because it’s a great script with a great cast, great direction and a great crew. I wasn’t expecting people to be as in love with the show as they have been so far though. After each performance we overhear people giddily talking about the play, arguing about the central mystery and comparing it to other productions we’ve created. Many try to decide whether Hangmen is their favourite from Post or just one of their favourite plays in general.”

Enjoying this feedback, the producer hopes it makes people ask more wide-ranging questions too.

“I hope audiences leave the play asking themselves whether they need to be more humble about what they believe,” he said. “Also whether their standards for belief are high enough to prevent them from hurting people based on avoidable misunderstandings. There’s never been a time in history where these questions weren’t relevant and there never will be.”

Presented in association with Windsor Feminist Theatre, remaining performances of Hangman will take place at Shadowbox Theatre on October 13th, 14th, 19th, 20th and 21st. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online or at the door with cash, debit or credit if seats still remain. Showtime for all performances is 8:00pm with doors opening at 7:30pm.

Receiving this audience support has also made Hangman rewarding to its cast in other ways.

“I am beyond blessed to be a part of this wonderful show,” said Mazzocca. “To make a comeback to the stage and have it be amongst this group is truly an honour. To my fellow cast, crew, director and producers – THANK YOU. It’s been an absolute delight working with all of you.”

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