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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Theatre review: Scratch is very personal

We all process grief differently. For playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, part of her process included writing Scratch.

Originally written at the age of sixteen, and reworked over the years following the death of her mother from cancer, Corbeil-Coleman’s Scratch is about as personal as you can get. But while there is little doubt that creating the piece would have helped her move on, there is so little depth to Scratch that her loss becomes too elusive for an audience to truly connect, and at times feels more like a therapy session.

Part of the problem may be that while Scratch has seen many changes since originally written, in a 2008 interview with the University of Toronto’s student newspaper Corbeil-Coleman says that she “tried very hard to stay true to the urgency of the teenager who wrote it” and that “the power of the play lives in the immediacy of the teenage experience”.  While perhaps a lofty writer’s goal to stay true to her original work, one can’t help but wonder what Scratch might have become if she had tackled it strictly through the eyes of an adult, rather than what has become a mix of her younger and older selves, which has the unintended effect of diluting its impact on an audience.

There is an unevenness in Scratch where the playwright’s younger and older voice take focus at various times. In what one would identify as the more mature portions of the show, there is a poetry to the words that is absolutely gorgeous (“You have to be beautiful if you’re in pain, it’s only fair”). In others, the fervent memories of an anguished teen are starkly different.

Interestingly Corbeil-Coleman packs her script with six characters (some who play multiple others) into this 90-minute piece. The result is few opportunities to find any real depth. While it could be argued that Scratched is simply a distant memory of her experience where her recollection of certain events or people may be less-than-fully-formed, the dramatic arc of her story never feels fully realized, and as an audience it becomes difficult to become fully invested.  That she spends so much time on Anna’s lice infection doesn’t help either.

Still there are some terrific performances here, led by Stephanie Izsak in the role of Madelyn, Anna’s best friend. Izsak finds the quirkiness of her character with ease, and it is through her that the anguish of death really comes through.

Caitlin McCarthy does nice work as the 16-year old Anna, in constant motion with her wild and lice infected hair, it does become a metaphor for the chaos of the situation. Tamara McCarthy also does nice work as the idiosyncratic Aunt torn between supporting Anna and wanting to be there for her dying sister. Markian Tarasiuk gives each of his characters memorable personalities, although his stage business sometimes pulls focus.

Eileen Barrett and David Bloom as the dying mother and father to Anna do the most with their characters, but surprisingly they feel the least fleshed out in Corbeil-Coleman’s remembered world. Given Barrett’s terrific performance as the dying mother in last year’s Small Parts, she appears to be the current go-to for this type of role.

Grief is such an odd and personal experience. While Scratch may be a cathartic window upon which Corbeil-Coleman has been able to deal with her own loss, there is little depth to either fully invest, or to use it as a window into our own grief process.

Fuck lice! Fuck Cancer!

Scratch by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. Directed by Genevieve Fleming. A Theatre Plexus presentation on stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until June 13. Visit for tickets and information.

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