theatre review

by Colleen Wagner
Felix Culpa and Rumble Productions
Performance Works, Granville Island
November 11–27
604-257-0366 or

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 Skin knocked us all out.

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, not sex?

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 game.

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?

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:17 PM
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