I've been looking forward to this
for a long time. After months of lightweight comedies and musicals,
the always reliable Felix Culpa and Rumble Productions hook up
to bring us a heavyweight Governor General's Award winning drama
about war crimes. Montreal playwright Colleen Wagner barely registers
on my Canadian theatre radar screen, but then neither did Montrealer
Carol Fréchette until her amazing Elisa's
us all out.
Felix Culpa and Rumble Productions
Performance Works, Granville Island
604-257-0366 or www.festivalboxoffice.com
Staged arena-style on Andreas Kahre's grimly functional set,
an oblong platform studded with obtrusions that look like barely
buried coffins, the show opens with a bang, literally, a theatre-shaking
explosion followed by an almost subliminal thrumming in a very
effective sound design by Noah Drew. We're in a postwar landscape
where Stetko, a young fighter, stands accused of ethnic cleansing.
Apparently a sexual psychopath, he laughingly admits to having
raped and then killed 23 girls and women at a detention camp.
He offers half-hearted excuses: he was only 17 and the peer pressure
was huge, if he didn't do it they'd think he was a sympathizer
and kill his family. "I didn't care who won the war. It
was just a job." All this is pretty chilling and it all
rings true of what we've read and heard of such young men in
those circumstances--all but his constant refrain about "coming" during
the rapes. He couldn't come, he wanted to come, he tried to come.
Would even a psychopath talk that way to strangers, especially
his accusers? And don't we know that rape is all about power,
The other character in this two-hander is a woman named Mejra,
obviously of the other tribe or ethnicity, who has somehow managed
to secure the right to make Stetko a deal. He can save his life
if he agrees to become, in effect, Mejra's slave. He grudgingly
agrees. For the rest of this long one-act, Mejra insults, hectors
and beats the chained and tethered young man, and eventually
makes him dig up some of the bodies of the women he raped and
killed. Gradually, as appears to be the plan, Stetko becomes
more human and Mejra reveals the specific stakes she has in this
Okay, it's not exactly a game. It's a parable or allegory, an
ethnic holocaust reduced to two characters in an abstract, nameless,
placeless landscape acting out a ritual made possible only by
our acceptance of questionable theatrical conventions. Why and
how did she get the power to save him from execution? And why
doesn't he just escape or overpower her? Yes, he's shackled with
a variety of elaborate props. But realistically, he could crush
her at any given moment, especially as the spectacularly muscular
actor, Stuart Pierre, is substantially bigger and obviously stronger
than the actress, Linda Quibell.
Of course, the conventions of staging here are not fully realistic--when
Mejra beats Stetko, it's done via stylized sound and lighting
effects--although they sometimes are, as when Stetko literally
digs down through a couple of feet of dirt to disinter the bodies.
But if we are to take the subject matter of the play seriously,
as we are clearly intended to do, the people and events must
be absolutely real to us. The script's lack of specificity and
realism fatally undermines its inarguably good, if overly earnest,
intentions. Director David Bloom hasn't found a way to successfully
reconcile the contradictory elements of subject and style.
Given the challenges of this material, the actors do a very
fine job. Pierre makes Stetko's callow consciencelessness entirely
believable, and his personal, visceral attractiveness makes us
want to see him redeem himself. Quibell absolutely commits to
Mejra's towering rage and grief. But ultimately the all too real
issues of war and its evils, justice, retribution and reconciliation
remain too distanced and abstracted to affect us the way they
should. How did this play ever win a GG award?