Like the mouse in the title, is a tricky little story that plays with your head and makes you squirm. Now playing at the Ottawa Little Theatre, the psychological thriller written by Peterborough’s Robert Ainsworth may be more shadowy foreboding than white knuckle in style but it’s slippery with plot twists nonetheless with humour peppered in to keep the tension in check.
Mouse House unfolds in a series of short scenes book-ended by blackouts and cliff hangers, the suspense building as you realize how tightly the action is framed. At any one time, the action is confined to just two characters in two small rooms. In Ainsworth’s script, the mouse, feared though harmless and ultimately expendable becomes a potent metaphor for the weaker party at any given moment. You can never be sure who has the upper hand and just when you think you have an idea of where things are headed, everything shifts under you like the floors in a fun house. Under Val Bogan’s fine tuned direction, Mouse House does everything Hitchcock listed in his recipe for suspense; creating an expectation of something bad to come, teasing you into thinking you have a superior perspective of events and then leaving you powerless to intervene when all trouble comes down.
Like many a good thriller, Mouse House gives you a protagonist who’s easy to root for in a desert-island type situation with only his strength and wits to get by on. Carson is a best-selling author retreating to the solitude of the family cabin to finish his book. It’s mid-October and the cabin’s miles from any outpost of civilization.
Though his agent Bobby is hesitant to leave him so vulnerable, he insists that cutting himself off from even a phone is exactly what he needs. It’s his way of acknowledging that “the muse can be temperamental and unamused,” as he puts it.
Ainsworth’s exposition is a very deliberate thriller set up with enough foreshadowing to make you giggle. Between setting the cabin in Skelton Shores and ending it with Carson admitting to himself, “I do feel abandoned,” there are plenty of hooks to draw you in. Sure enough, he’s just settled in and fallen asleep at the typewriter when a stranger busts through the window. Carson wins the first round of the cat and mouse game, knocking the intruder out cold. Come morning, Carson’s in one room and Troy, a troubled young kid is in the other, his leg chained to a bedpost.
Needless to say, things start to get interesting. We get to be flies on the wall as these two guys from different sides of the tracks circle each other, trying to figure the other out and trip them up. From this point nothing is solid or certain. Characters turn on a dime and the plot twists restlessly to keep things moving. When Carson’s rough-and-tumble trucker brother Thomas drops in to check on him things turn stranger still. Maybe the bigger surprise is that amidst all the gasp-worthy twists there’s still room for a tender moment or two.
Though there are some things in the story that don’t add up, like why a timid writer would kidnap this kid, the performances cover for any logical inconsistencies.
Mike Thompson brings an ease to the stage as Carson with inflections and gestures that feel authentic and lived-in. William Verreault Milner plays Troy with a crackling physicality and fiery intensity, his furtive posture and toothy smirk, hinting at the trouble he’s seen. He adeptly walks the tightrope of a young guy nursing a world of hurt and struggling to keep up the tough exterior, swinging between lost soul and loose cannon. As Carson’s deadbeat brother Thomas, Bob Lackey delivers on swagger, though he lacked the menace or desperation that would fully explain his character. Though a smaller role, Pat Gowans plays Bobby with pep, and her worry for Carson and spiky disdain for the cabin feel genuine.
The technical team play a solid role in creating the uneasy atmosphere. Andrew Hamelin’s set design captures the cabin’s closed-in feeling and gives the audience a “superior perspective” of events through the bedroom wall. Lighting designer David Magladry’s sharp timing and subtle time-lapse fadeouts work in concert with sound designer Lindsay Wilson’s inter-scene soundtrack of pizzicato violins over ominous cello drones to maintain the mood.
There are shows that come wrapped in a bow and then there are ones like this. If you enjoy the topsy-turvy head games and vicarious adrenaline rushes of a good thriller, you’ll be happy you made the trip to the Mouse House.
Mouse House continues at the Ottawa Little Theatre through to May 21. Fair warning, there is some mature content and language. Click here for ticket information.