The first Ron Pearson work I encountered at the Fringe were the outdoor sideshow illusions of the Spider Lady, Cobra Girl, and the Headless Horror (thanks for reminding me of the titles, Gig City). The illusion were safely ensconced under a tent, like olden days freakshows. There was even a barker (“step right up!”), and someone to take your dollar when curiosity finally got the better of you and you decided you had to see for yourself. I went to each show multiple times because the illusions looked so real. I could never figure them out!
Pearson has also put on his fair share of more conventional indoor plays, all with an emphasis on magic. This year, he’s back with a play called Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs. (Directed by Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss, the production originally debuted at the Roxy on Gateway in January of this year.)
In Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs, a female escape artist fights to escape the narrow roles to which women are confined. The play follows the story of Minerva Vano, a now-forgotten escape artist and rival of Harry Houdini. She is thought to be active from 1904 to 1913, a period of heightened suffragist activity, and a time that coincides with years of ascendency for the cities of Strathcona and Edmonton. The latter is not part of the show, but sets the action in a period that fits well with the Old Strathcona location of the Fringe festival.
Alas, some things have been slow to change. Vano had a #MeToo moment when she was sexually harassed and then blacklisted by an amusement park manager. Surprisingly for the time, Vano sued. The case and its outcome is a highlight of the play. Later, a discomforting chant of “lock her up” sums up Vano’s fight to lead a public life, and reminds us that the struggle continues for many women.
Minerva Vano is played by Miranda Allen, a fine actor who ably conveys Vano’s complicated relationships with her husband, other people in the industry, and her own psyche. She’s also an actual escape artist! With the help of Richard Lee Hsi (who plays a variety of characters, including Vano’s husband, the amusement park boss, and Houdini), and volunteer members of the audience, Allen pulls off some amazing escapes that I will probably never be able to figure out!
I may just need to see Minerva, Queen of the Handcuffs again.
(For those curious about Minerva Vano, check out this link out AFTER you’ve seen the show.)