Review: Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story (Ebb & Flow Theatre)

Enemies can serve as a façade just as well as they can speak for your soul, for how you choose to carry yourself in the world. And there are few contexts where this dichotomy is in starker contrast than Hollywood, where rivalries are rarely as straightforward as they are portrayed to be.

From left to right: Georgia Findlay, Crystal Casera, Mackenzie Kelly and Nicole Moller.

Golden age, Oscar-winning actors (and sisters) Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland sit high on the all-time list of these rifts with their lifelong quarrel. It began innocently enough with hail-pulling and wrestling matches; but devolved into Joan referring to Olivia’s new husband, novelist Marcus Goodrich, by saying, “All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around;” and Olivia sending a telegram to Joan about their mother’s impending death instead of calling; and also, many years later, referring to the recently deceased Joan as ‘Dragon Lady’ due to the “astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”

Intent on tapping into some of that raw familial animosity, Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story, the latest offering from Ebb & Flow Theatre, presents us with a generational family drama that uses the supernatural as a springboard into meditations on sibling rivalry.

Joan, played by playwright Georgia Findlay, and Olivia, played by Nicole Moller, are ghosts doomed to spend eternity in their childhood California home, where young sisters Celeste, played by Mackenzie Kelly, and Molly, played by Crystal Casera, have recently moved in. The quartet soon break off into master and protégé pairs as the actors play their rivalry out again through M&C’s eyes.

The chemistry between Joan’s playful irreverence and Olivia’s posh iciness is what initially roped me into the show. Enhanced by Findlay’s knack for repartees, as well as plenty of sophisticatedly integrated cinematic and biographical references for the knowing, the ladies quickly establish a rhythm fueled by shared history that keeps things moving along at a colorful and engaging pace.

The reason they offer worthwhile portrayals, beyond physical features and sharp Mid-Atlantic accents, is that they get at the consequences of cuts that were cleaner than they should have been. Extreme decisions, like sisters shutting themselves out of each others’ lives, taking their toll over time in the form of moral worldviews too narrow to keep many loved ones around. The amount of spite, jealousy and revenge they hurl about can be overwhelming, especially when the younger sisters lean into their own because of it, hammering home the point that habits compound whether healthy or not.

The hopeful turn Ebb & Flow bring to this classic story is embodied by Molly and Celeste, also constantly feuding, in that they still have time to strike a truce before life gets too far gone. They don’t get too much help from their spectral housemates, experts as Joan and Olivia are at holding a grudge, but they do manage to steer the overall conversation far closer to self-honesty and reconciliation than the real-life actors ever achieved. There is something deeply satisfying about revisionism that points out the most obvious but somehow also the hardest fact for some to accept, which is that no difference is insurmountable.

Molly and Celeste, living in the present day, mirror Joan and Olivia’s verbally violent dynamic with a richer palate to express their rage for one another, one more expansive than Olivia and Joan had as women in the early-to-mid 20th century. While J&O drape with dignity the rifts they can’t but recognize as irreconcilable, perhaps bottling in their excess energy, M&C have no such qualms, shoving one another and screaming in each others’ faces to alleviate their tension as instantly as possible. M&C’s physicality generally, free-flowing and often stretched into awkward positions, also stands in contrast to J&O’s tightly wound dispositions, adding to the tension between the different generations separating their sisterhoods.

Tying everything together, I found the costumes added a vibrancy to the story, their lush colors and contrasts lending grace and brightness to the darkest moments, and a sense of refinement to the funniest, all the while enhancing and blurring the age and era differences as relationships develop.

Though I may not have referred to it til now, Joan and Olivia, as well as Molly and Celeste, are somewhat complementary to each other, allowing their love to show, however faintly glimmering. Dramaturg Matt Eger makes delicate use of these flickers, spreading them out to keep our hearts rapt in the back-and-forth between affection and loathing until the curtain drops.

I also appreciated the literary flourishes in the script, most notably the moments of interlaced dialogue where speakers in different conversations speak one after the other, infusing the proceedings with poetry. Findlay also rounds off the generational differences between the protagonists with gorgeously intricate turns of phrase that have J&O sounding posh as can be, and more minimal exhortations, beautiful in their simplicity, that place M&C firmly in the age of mass media.

From a bird’s eye view, Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story is an example of how you can balance entertainment with quality storytelling that speaks to grander themes without sacrificing either. It earns its place in the lore of its starring sisters by rising to the task of adding drama to one of Hollywood’s foundational stories.

Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story is on tonight at 6:15pm for one more show as part of its run at the Toronto Fringe. Tickets here.