The science of suspense

The Huron Bride works hard to scare the audience

Playwright Hannah Moscovitch says the Canadian wilds of the early 19th century are the perfect setting for a gothic ghost story.

“A lot of the tropes and archetypes of gothic literature fit with Canada. Usually they (stories) take place in an isolated gloomy location from which the characters can’t escape.”

In Moscovitch’s The Huron Bride now playing at Vertigo Theatre that “isolated gloomy location” isn’t a creepy old castle; instead it’s a small town in Upper Canada in 1834.

The story’s innocent young heroine — crucial to gothic literature — is Hazel Sheehan (Georgina Beaty) who journeys from Liverpool to Upper Canada to work at the sawmill built by her cousin James Flynn (Nathan Schmidt). Flynn in turn occupies another essential gothic archetype: the gloomy hero.

It isn’t long before Sheehan and Flynn fall in love. However their romance is interrupted by the ghost of Flynn’s first wife a Huron woman named Manon Boivert (Michelle Thrush) who died under mysterious circumstances.

Add to the cast of characters a very unusual Métis child Lyca Milton (Leanne Govier) who seems to have preternatural knowledge of previous horrors that happened on the mill’s grounds.

Moscovitch says she researched ghost stories and gothic literature extensively. “I started out with a genre…. I spent a lot of time learning how to write a ghost story technically” she says.

She describes the staging of a terror-and-suspense play as a “science” adding that each moment has to be extremely precise in order for the play to have the desired effect on an audience. “We can work five hours on one moment” she says.

The Huron Bride actually began life as part of a four-play cycle The Mill for Toronto’s Theatrefront which drew inspiration from a more sensational history than Canadians are familiar with.

“One of the reasons we wrote the cycle is because Canadian history has a reputation for being dry and boring. We wanted to bring to life the gothic side of Canadian history the side of Canadian history that has blood axes and ghosts in it” says Moscovitch.

While the playwright is reluctant to be specific about where truth ends and fiction begins in The Huron Bride she does insist there is some truth in it. “The play is meant to act as a microcosm of Canada…. It explores how different cultures collided in Canada” she adds.

In addition to the collision of white settlers with the First Nations — in this case the Huron (Wendat) people — The Huron Bride also explores the interaction between Protestants and Catholics. Sheehan for example is an Irish Catholic who tries to befriend a fervent Protestant spinster named Rebecca Jessup (Jamie Konchak) in Upper Canada. One of the mill employees another Catholic by the name of Alexandre Martinique (Graham Percy) has his sights set on Jessup but religion comes between them.

Despite the underlying cultural undertones the emphasis is on getting a reaction.

“First and foremost ghost stories are meant to scare and thrill audiences” says Moscovitch. “(Director) Eric Rose and I sit in the back of the theatre watching people. The most exciting thing is watching audience members jump. We’ve even had a few people scream. We’re really excited about that” she jokes.

Moscovitch who is a playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and who also wrote for the CBC Radio drama Afghanada says it’s a “real pleasure to write a Canadian story.”

“We’re so inundated with storytelling from the United States and Great Britain…. Canadians really like to hear about Canadians.”