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Review: A Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky

Photos by James MacLean

Magic, Motherhood, and Mourning: A Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky Hurts in the Best Way.

Set against the open fall sky, Colleen MacIsaac’s new work, A Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky, moves rapidly across time and reality, creating an at times dizzying story that has one North Star to guide it: the beautiful love between parent and child.

It’s the end of outdoor theatre season, and what better way to transition from a blisteringly hot summer into what is going to be a crisp fall than with a little stargazing. MacIsaac’s new play invites the audience to join a nighttime Astronomy class, taught by eclectic high school teacher Albertine (Geneviève Steele) and her awkward, yet earnest child, Léo (Rooks Field-Green). Within this framework, the play leads into a touching and heartbreaking story of a bond that is yearning to heal, even as time, distance, illness, and identity create new fractures in their relationship.

The play moves rapidly through a series of flashbacks, with narration from Léo, where the pair help each other teach, illustrating concepts about astronomy, fun facts about the stars, and even leading sing-alongs to help remember the phases of the moon and order of the planets. Both performers play their characters so earnestly, which heightens the fundamental misunderstandings that create strain on their relationship. I found myself torn between empathizing with Léo’s desire for privacy in which to explore their identity and sense of self, and touched at Albertine’s attempts to include and support their child openly and loudly.

as the stakes and emotions rise, builds great momentum to showcase Léo’s rapidly shifting emotions

I’ll make no secret of being a fan of Geneviève Steele’s work, and this play is no exception. Steele moves brilliantly through a transition from eccentric high school art teacher to a mother beginning to suffer from the isolation that comes with early dementia, in a way that is both subtle and well built. In contrast, Rooks Field-Green feels like a stronger narrator than performer at the start of the show, but as the stakes and emotions rise, builds great momentum to showcase Léo’s rapidly shifting emotions in the latter half. The direction by Garry Williams plays this contrast to great effect, juxtaposing Field-Green’s initial awkwardness with Steele’s radiance, and later allowing Léo moments to be a pillar for Albertine as she begins to decline.

As the play progresses, and the lines of reality and time move faster, I find myself questioning when Léo is speaking to the audience as students of their mother’s class, and when they are speaking to the audience themselves. Similarly, I was deeply curious to know the full timeline of the flashbacks, especially when a few of them seemed to be in a different order (in most flashbacks, Léo seems to be an early undergrad student, but in others, they seem to be a younger child.) Perhaps this is intentional, a reflection of the ephemeral nature of memory, but I find myself desiring a little more clarity.

The minimalist scenic design by Brenda Chicas-Duran feels a little out of the world of the play with their detailed constellation paintings, but it plays well into the blurring of reality and memory that Léo shares with us. In a similar vein, the lighting design by Matt Downey and Costumes by Noella Murphy help us understand that movement across time is happening, but I often found myself wanting to know what specific time the story is moving to.

The outdoor space of the Ferry Terminal Park is always sparsely populated, even after sunset, and its location off of Downtown Dartmouth across the railroad tracks creates an environment of interruptions, from children in the nearby playground, to passersby on evening walks, even actual trains traveling through the park. Night Sky leans into the worldliness of its venue, both in its setting (an evening outdoor class is bound to have hiccups) and in its storytelling, where our two characters often struggle to find words or their trains of thought (pun intended.)

A particular standout moment of the production for me was a long interruption by a train, where Steele’s Albertine allowed herself to be distracted by the stars, and invited us all to gaze at them mid-lesson. The stage lights flicked off, and for a moment, we were all together in the park, watching the moon. The improvisation and wordless communication across the entire team was lovely to witness, and I’m always honoured to be a part of those messy, beautiful theatre moments.

Overall, I find myself touched by the earnest feelings of mourning that persist throughout A Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky, and I find myself thinking about what it means to live in the moment with those we love, and what it means to remember those we have lost. There’s still a week to see this show, and I highly recommend you do. Bring a thermos of hot cider or cocoa, a warm lap blanket, and learn about the stars, about love, and about loss.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky Runs until October 8th and has a runtime of 55 minutes. Tickets are Pay What You Can, available from Childcare and active listening are available for every performance. The production is co-presented by The Villains Theatre, and Eastern Front Theatre.