The neighbourhood is called Butcher’s Town. It’s a slum of grey buildings, grey streets, grey skies, grey moods. You can hear children playing, their voices echoing in thin corridors between old brick buildings that were fashionable in the 1920’s but have stood mostly empty for decades except for the occasional squatter. The air is thick with the stench of sulfur, the offal from the slaughterhouses that give the neighbourhood its name and the residents their jobs, and the heaps of trash that litter the streets and sidewalks. This isn’t a place where dreams go to die; this is where dreams are strangled at birth.
The residents of Butcher’s Town know better than to dream. As they grow up, they learn quickly that all they have to look forward to once the daily beatings of their childhood are finally over is to one day work in the slaughterhouses alongside their parents and, if they’re lucky, marry someone local and start a family they can finally beat themselves.
But there’s one bright spot in Butcher’s Town, one out-of-place building that seems to have been colourized in an old black-and-white film: a ballet theatre called the Mirabella. Many decades ago, a Hungarian immigrant named Stephan Illyich arrived in Butcher’s Town. He saw immediately that the people were desperate, especially the little girls. They needed something that represented a larger and brighter world filled with magic and colour and beauty and hope. So he founded a ballet theatre and, in it, a ballet school. He began to teach the girls of Butcher’s Town to dance ballet. They learned discipline. They developed pride.
They were finally able to dream of lives immersed in imagination, their bodies used in synchronicity to live an art form that others could observe to fuel their own dreams. As the girls grew up, many of them became teachers at the Mirabella – and many continued dancing. The Mirabella became the pride of Butcher’s Town. No matter what drudgery the work week brought, the residents could look forward to seeing beauty enacted onstage in the evenings and on the weekends. Adults could buy tickets at affordable prices. Children got in free.
But now Detective Michael Byrne – who grew up in Butcher’s Town and escaped by joining law enforcement – has returned to his old neighbourhood because of a terrible tragedy. One of the dancers he idolized in childhood, and who later became a teacher at the Mirabella, has been murdered. Her name is Robyn Carter. Her body was found on the stage of the Mirabella. Detective Byrne must find out who committed this terrible act and why.
His investigation leads him to uncover some dark truths about the Mirabella, the dreams it offers, and the people who populate its artistic world. It leads him to confront secrets of his own and accept that perhaps some of what the Mirabella promised was only ever an illusion.
Byrne and his partner, neophyte Detective Lila Osillic, discover that there are plenty of viable suspects.
There’s Stephan Illyich himself, the old ballet master. Weathered and crotchety, he’s devoted his life to the Mirabella and appears to be devastated by Robyn’s murder. But according to her sister Sherri, Robyn recently began to suspect that Illyich was hiding something. That something about him wasn’t quite right.
There’s Conrad Keyo, the Mirabella’s janitor. An immigrant with a troubled past, he’d been accused of leering at and maybe even stalking some of the dancers.
There’s Benjamin Burrows, the Mirabella’s business manager. Although he barely knew Robyn, he had become concerned that her lifestyle was possibly detrimental to the theatre’s image and reputation.
And then there are the patrons, many of them young men, and many of them prone to obsessing over and even stalking the Mirabella’s dancers and teachers. One of the men so accused is Byrne’s best friend from childhood, Eamon Conner, a truck driver haunted by painful childhood memories.
Did one of these men murder Robyn Carter? Or was it more than one of them? None of them?
The mystery is reminiscent of the David Lynch series Twin Peaks, which began with the question of who killed Laura Palmer but ultimately wasn’t really about who killed Laura Palmer, but rather how the entire town and the culture it created was responsible for her death. In this story love is what binds the characters to each other or, in some cases, to the Mirabella and its dancers. Love in all its messy complexity is the web in which each character is ensnared – in part because they’re unable or unwilling to acknowledge or share their love.
This is the story of Mirabella by Joey Ouellette, winner of the 2022 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest, which premieres at The Shadowbox Theatre on 16 June 2023 for a three-week run. Mirabella is the third of Ouellette’s scripts to win the annual contest, which is coordinated by Post Productions. And it’s a script very unlike his previous winners, both of which tackled important themes through more comedic stories. Mirabella has moments of comedy, moments of drama, and a constant air of mystery and suspense. But ultimately it’s a tragedy about what art can do for us – and what art can do to us. It’s a gripping and complex story that will have audiences perched on the edge of their seats, trying to guess what happens next.
When his script won the contest, Ouellette asked that it be staged with minimal sets and props, focused instead on using space and light and characterization to capture and hold the audience’s attention.
Three actors play all seven characters. Ouellette himself plays Detective Michael Byrne and the janitor, Conrad Keyo. Fay Lynn (who also produces) plays Detective Lila Osillic and Sherri Carter, Robyn’s sister. Michael K. Potter (who also directs) plays ballet master Stephan Illyich, business manager Benjamin Burrows, and truck driver Eamon Conner. The action moves swiftly, requiring each actor to slip in and out of different characters with efficiency and confidence.
“We have art in order not to die of the truth” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power. Butcher’s Town may be the truth for most of its inhabitants, and as a state of mind it may be the truth for many inhabitants in many different cities. Art can distract us from unpleasant truths about our lives.
It can also present us with new possibilities which we might not have imagined, which might become new truths if we pursue them. And it can obscure truths we’d prefer not to see. Art can do all of these things simultaneously. Detective Byrne learns this in Mirabella. But does he learn it in time to save himself?
Mirabella by Joey Ouellette will be presented by Post Productions at The Shadowbox Theatre (1501 Howard Ave, corner of Howard and Shepherd) June 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30 & July 1. Showtime 8:00 PM (doors open 7:30). Tickets can be purchased for $25 through postproductionswindsor.ca or at the door (cash, debit, or credit card) if seats are still available. Presented in association with Windsor Feminist Theatre.