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By Camyar Chai, Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef
Gateway Theatre in association with Neworld Theatre and Cahoots Theatre Projects
Gateway Theatre, Studio B, Richmond
March 2-11

[This was Jerry's review of the show when it last played Vancouver in the Fall 2004.]

I saw this show at the Cultch last February and absolutely loved it. Since then it has played in Toronto and Montreal, returning this month for three shows at the Freddy Wood with the original Ali’s, Camyar Chai and Marcus Youssef, and John Murphy replacing Tom Butler as the theatre manager. The script involves two refugees named Ali from a fictional Middle Eastern country who are putting on a political cabaret in hopes of getting our sympathy, raising money and attaining refugee sponsorship. The theatre manager, a broadly drawn Scotsman, keeps intervening to remind the Ali’s that they are supposed to be doing a Canadian multicultural family play (of which we get a few very funny versions). Meanwhile, with the help of video projections, we learn bits and pieces of a plot involving “the axes of evil,” which turn out to be hidden in the audience, giving the Ali’s an opportunity to terrorize us in a ridiculous comic version of the kind of situation people named Ali seem often to be put in these days.

The video is especially delicious. In one scene the actors manipulate small sticks within a 2-foot-square “theatre.” Pasted onto them are the faces of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin (who they insist calling Semicolon) Powell. As the actors vocalize the characters arguing about foreign policy, the puppet show is projected via video onto the large screen. This is “poor theatre” at its best, where the necessity of doing things on the cheap is turned into a theatrical virtue. We see this again near the end when the United Nations (or United Furniture Warehouse of Nations, as they insist on calling it) peacekeepers “invade” the audience wearing hockey helmets, in cardboard jeeps and tanks which the actors wear around their waists.

The quality of the work as a whole is outstanding. This kind of material is a minefield, inviting over-the-top caricatured acting and silliness. The performances never veer into this territory except when the material demands it. The nature of the material—agitprop political cabaret—requires the actors to be both inside and outside the material at once. Youssef and Chai are consistently charming, ridiculous and funny, while always aware of when specific geopolitical information needs to be communicated or particular political points scored.

There’s a tremendous amount of material in this show, which in some ways is like a sitcom with a gag or joke or political point to be scored every 20 or 30 seconds. Guillermo Verdecchia’s direction kept the actors working at a very fast pace to accomplish this. My only real complaint involved the relative lack of structure and overabundance of material. There is a scenario but no real plot, so it sometimes feels like scene follows scene for no particular reason. But I assume that the show will have been pruned and tightened since I saw it.

Political satire rarely appears on Canadian stages these days, and this is a model for how sharp, controversial, even “politically incorrect” political comment can be handled. Our relationship as Canadians to the foreign policy of the New American Empire and to the Iraqi/Palestinian side of the Middle East story is of great importance to all of us. This show, a kind of Canadian theatrical Al Jazeera, intelligently handles such material and manages at the same time to be theatrically innovative and hilarious. Highly recommended.

Jerry Wasserman