Curio Shoppe – disturbing and virtual

When we started to think about how the pandemic precautions and customs would affect our autumn traditions, some people thought about Thanksgiving, and how they could find safer alternatives to the sense of joy and connection they found in sharing a big meal with family and friends. Some people thought about Hallowe’en, what to do about the custom of children touring the neighbourhood in costume collecting candy. But I thought about Dead Centre of Town, the site-specific scary shows created by Catch the Keys, where creepy footnotes of local history are recreated and enhanced into spine-tingling ghost stories and haunting performances by Megan Dart and Beth Dart. In recent years, the productions have been held in different parts of the living-history museum Fort Edmonton Park. Colin Matty is the gravel-voiced host Wilf, providing a bare minimum of narration, and a handful of “henches” (Christine Lesiak, Adam Keefe, Vincent Forcier, et al.) lead or lure or chase the audiences from one scene to the next. The weather’s usually cold, but there’s usually a chance to warm up before or after the show at a bonfire. And I realized that this year we were going to miss out on all of that.

Dead Centre of Town has done epidemic stories before – there was the one about the young teacher (Bobbi Goddard) last seen in 1920, while walking across the High Level Bridge to quarantine herself in a Spanish Flu sanitorium. And there was the one with the scary nurse (Elisa Benzer) telling about delivering the diphtheria vaccine by airplane in the North. And someday, I’d like to see what stories this team can tell about a pandemic like ours – but not yet.

This year, the Dead Centre of Town team has a virtual / multimedia production, called Curio Shoppe. As they say in their promotions, you can participate from “the discomfort of your own home”. It’s an interactive video stream, that works similarly to the performance platform used for Vena Amoris/Fringe virtual production Tracks last spring. The audience logs in from home, watches, listens, and clicks to make some choices of which stream to follow. But you also get text messages and phone calls from the characters at appropriate points in the performance, which adds immediacy.

It’s so cool. Parts of it are seriously disturbing – the warnings at the beginning mention violence, gendered violence, gore, and swearing, and they are warranted. And parts are just intriguing. Colin Matty introduces the performance in the character of a fussy formal Curio Shoppe owner sharing some artifacts and memories, but glimpses of his less-civilized alter-ego Wilf seem to break through the surface. And head henches Christine Lesiak and Adam Keefe are also looming.

The story that’s told – at least, the story that unfolded through the choices I clicked on – starts from one of the historical horrors that’s been examined in a previous version of Dead Centre of Town, a serial-killer story. It then adds in a contemporary story (which I really hope is fictional!) and ends in an ambiguous but somewhat satisfying way. The audience member gets to see and hear various bits of documentary evidence along with atmospheric video encounters with the historical characters.

Morgan Yamada and Jake Tkaczyk play the principals and the investigators. They are supported by a chorus of ghost voices, radio interviewers, and so on.

The ticket price for Curio Shoppe, for however many household/cohort members want to cluster around a computer screen, is about the same as the single-ticket price for last year’s Dead Centre of Town XII show at Fort Edmonton Park. The producers recommend that you put on headphones, turn out your lights, and log out of distractions – but you actually don’t have to, if that way seems too scary. Curio Shoppe is playing until (of course) Hallowe’en, every night except Mondays, and you can get tickets through Eventbrite. Some performances are already sold out.

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