Tale of a Town Toronto

Tale of a Town laments the loss of hip Queen West

Picture this, you're just about to move into your new home, the Champagne Flaming Feather Eco Boho Legend Lofts, a development featuring suites modeled after the street on which it's situated: The Cameron Penthouse, The Rivoli Retreat Room, and The Handsome Ned Nook. But before you're able to furnish your new pad with the latest from West Elm, you're taken on a trip down memory lane from Jane, who offers a portrait of the more authentic Queen West of the 1980s.

Tale of a Town — Queen West is an ambitious site-specific theatrical tour that draws attention to the big box developments that have transformed the strip, while at the same time digs beneath the fresh paint to find artifacts that define the true character of the street. The show works best when it's focused on rediscovering the moments that defined the artistic pulse of Toronto, but its satirical take on gentrification competes for attention and ultimately undermines the immediacy of the former tales. Lacking focus yet abound with creative energy, the play is a tribute to a Queen West of decades past.

Beginning at the red doors of Theatre Passe Muraille, an exuberant condo developer escorts the group through the graffiti-peppered alleyways of Queen and Bathurst. Lisa Marie DiLiberto plays each and every character. Her condo developer is a caricature of a development-crazed real estate agent that offers an anecdote for each landmark. The rhyming dialogue is funny, but ultimately feels like a one-note jab at the gentrification of the strip.

The walking tour, however, is successful in activating a stretch of land most of us pass by each week in an exciting new way. Pedestrians, restaurant workers, and families with homes in the area become part of the visible landscape. The show brings theatre to those navigating the strip in the most unlikely way, and for that, FIXT POINT provides an incredible service for the "towns" it visits.

The audience ends up on the top floor of Duke's Cycle where the ghosts of Queen West's past are revisited in the shadow of the new development. Here, DiLiberto's more nuanced Jane, of Jane's Place (a vintage clothing store destroyed in the fire) takes us through her QW upbringing. We ride alongside Jane on the Spadina Bus, witness provocative performance art shut down by the morality squad, and nestle into the sounds of the Cameron House.

At the heart of these stories is Jane's one-night romance with Handsome Ned, the one time King of Queen West whose rockabilly tunes defined the heart of the strip. Using a pair of boot puppets, Jane lovingly narrates the story of their night on the town. It's the most memorable tale of the night and showcases inventive storytelling from DiLiberto about a true local hero. The tribute to those lost during the AIDS epidemic harnesses the same quality of loss, while others, about Citytv and Jane's shop, just don't measure up.

Charles Ketchabaw creates a rich tapestry of sound and video that set the play firmly in the artistic centre of 1980s Queen West. The projections of Trevor Schwellnus also elevate the space; a panoramic view of the strip, complete with pre- and post-fire overlays, is particularly striking. Director Varrick Grimes brings great vision to DiLiberto's script, with musicians Treasa Levasseur and Adam Paolozza helping tell the story through song.

The attack on the repackaging of Queen West with a higher prize tag — with all the buzz words of modern property offerings — draws focus from the true essence of the tale of the strip. It's in the stories of the street characters where DiLiberto's play lives. When it unearths these memories it's a strong lament for the neighbourhood at the heart of Toronto's artistic past.

Tale of Town — Queen West created and performed by Lisa Marie DiLiberto, is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille from September 14th - October 9. Tickets are $20 - $25.

Photo by Roger Cullman

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