Bittersweet, ‘Birthmarks’

Photo of Alex Boese performing in 'Birthmarks'.
Alex Boese performing in Birthmarks. Photo taken by Kevin Tanner.

A tragic, humorous, and thought provoking play; gripping attention from the very beginning. Birthmarks is a bittersweet one woman show that follows Kate. As a young woman recounting her life, she is trying to move on from the sudden death of her infant child while also coming to terms with her mother’s place in her life after abandoning her as a kid.

Alex Boese is fantastic as the one and only character. Maintaining an audience’s attention is difficult in a one person show. The success of the production hinges on the audience becoming invested in a singular character’s story. If this connection fails then the show will struggle to engage viewers. That is not the case in Birthmarks. I was invested in Kate from the get-go through Boese’s sweeping acting range and carefully-thought-out swaps of tone within the performance. She was funny when needed while displaying extreme levels of emotion when called upon. 

I also loved the set design by James Hrkach and the direction of the play by Michael Catlin. The play takes place in Kate’s room of what I assumed to be a psychiatric hospital. This is not directly said in the play, but she does discuss how other people in the complex can be “crazy”, making it implied All the props used in the show are already onstage from the beginning. I had fun throughout the play trying to figure out how each prop would be used in the story Kate is telling the audience. For example, there was a birthday cake on a table which wasn’t touched on until a good chunk into the performance. I found myself guessing who it belonged to and why it was there. 

The story Kate tells us is very non-linear. As she recounts events that happen in her life, she frequently goes on humorous tangents. In storytelling this can often come off as confusing but it is written in a way where everything Kate says (even on random tangents) has a purpose to the story. In the end of this nonlinear story, everything comes together which I loved. Kate as a character is very flawed and the story does not shy away from that aspect. I often disagreed with many choices she made in her past, but even with these faults, I found myself still caring for this character. This is due to Alexandria Haber’s great script and a first-rate performance by Boese. 

The show touches on mental health in a way that is not spoon fed to the audience, while also not avoiding it. Kate deals with mental health issues which are implied by some of her mannerisms and a few choices she has made in her life. As she recounts her life, an audience can see how she became the broken woman on stage and where some of her issues originated from. 

A few weeks back I sat down for an interview with Boese and Catlin. When asked what they want the audience to feel or learn when coming out of the performance, Boese stated, “I think something that I took away from the script was a message or moral of you don’t really know someone until you’ve heard their story or walked in their shoes. I think there’s a bit of compassion and understanding of other people’s perspectives in this show.” In this aspect, the show succeeded tenfold. As an audience member I felt like I was walking in Kate’s shoes when she described her mother leaving her and her son’s sudden death along with other moments in her life. Like I said before, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of choices Kate made in her life. With that being said, after hearing her whole story I can see her point of view, even if I still might not agree.

This is a story about a woman recounting and coming to terms with tragic moments in her life. Nevertheless there are still moments of humour which are a breath of fresh air in a, sometimes, intense story. Kate’s obsession and tangents about actress Demi Moore are a great addition to the show because it helps touch on her mental health while also displaying a humorous side of Kate’s personality.

Through its great direction, well written script, and fantastic acting, ‘Birthmarks’ is a one woman show I thoroughly enjoyed watching. It has a 40 minute runtime and is being performed six more times at the Baby Grand Theatre in the Kingston Fringe Festival as part of the 2023 Kick and Push Festival. More details can be found here.