Swans are elegant creatures with earthy appetites, beautiful birds but vicious, and as such lend themselves well to being used as metaphors.
Swan is a wildly ambitious play that revels in its earthiness and is packed full of metaphors. The basic plot is a horror/murder mystery hybrid that achieves moments of suspense and a few shudders. There are also multiple sub-plots or thematic strands that comment on life as an immigrant or outsider, sexual identity, ecology, the dangers of repression, and the fear of aging. Most of these work very well. Unfortunately the strands, intriguing and strong on their own, wind up in conflict instead of intertwining.
The central mystery is compelling but one shoehorned plot device is too extraordinary to be believed and gives away what most have already concluded. The horror is well presented and the lack of a huge special effects budget is cleverly compensated for by director Aaron Jan and lighting designer Samuel Chang. And the conviction of the cast makes the one cheat moment, where the unspeakable horror is described as they recoil in fear instead of being shown, a good one - I did look behind me in case it was real.
The fine cast is refreshingly multi-cultural and that is both immaterial and crucially important. Angela Sun's spunky Ron has a wonderful comic speech about her husband, "He likes me because I'm exotic but not offensive. We went to Thailand for our honeymoon because that's where he thinks I'm from . . . He takes me to Mandarin." This is after Ron has been described as, "She used to be homosexual but she decided to give it up to get married." Each of the characters has a back story as rich and complicated and with its own central mystery, that of identity.
The mystery/horror plot could easily have been played by five perky white girls (and if there were to be a movie/TV version, they probably would be except for one token) and at times Swan unspools as a parody of the whole last girl horror genre. But the lesbianism and ethnicities add a realism and layers that should have exploded at the moment the swan met its demise. The idea of the whiteness of the swan, of a swan, and the cultural insistence that that indicates purity and innocence, should have created a cathartic moment of release. And it did, except that there was much more Swan to come.
The characters are not only obsessed with solving the mystery of the murder and mutilation of the swan, but also with not having achieved their goals at their advanced ages. The timeline is fuzzy but they seem to be in their early 30s making their mid-life crises more hipster affectation than a serious concern. They also mock the elderly in a few random jokes that undercuts their angst completely. The writer with writer's block who fled the small town - in this case a much-mocked Hamilton - is a horror trope and without solid motivation becomes a cliché.
Sometimes the characters describe their actions in the third person; sometimes this creates a moody Lovecraftian atmosphere; sometimes it feels like lazy exposition. The taut thriller/horror story is undone by the equally emotional political and personal dynamics, and the tension goes slack. Swan is packed full of riches, often contradictory, as if it was impossible to cut any of them, even in service of making Swan the powerful theatrical piece it deserves to be. Ambition and over-reaching are good things, this Swan is full of ideas that need to be seen and there is a lot to be admired in a piece of art that exists solely to scare while exposing our subconscious fears. With some judicious pruning and the continued application of the hard work and talent that has gone into this production, a leaner meaner Swan is probably in our near future and it will be a fearsome beast.
Swan runs until Sun, Nov 13 at Theatre Passe-Muraille's Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. littleblackafro.com