Assumptions, uncertainty & paranoia in powerful, eye-opening Refuge

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Andrea Davis in Refuge – photos by John Lauener

There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.

Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.

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Mary Francis Moore & Raïs Muoi in Refuge

We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Jason Weinberg in Refuge

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.

With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.

Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.

Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.

Check out the trailer:

 

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SummerWorks: A compelling morality tale of modern-day slavery in Better Angels: A Parable

Akosua Amo-Adem in Better Angels - A Parable
Akosua Amo-Adem in Better Angels – A Parable

I first had the pleasure of seeing Andrea Scott’s Better Angels: A Parable in an early production at the 2014 New Ideas Festival, so I was excited to see how the piece had evolved for the SummerWorks production, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams and currently running at the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

Akosua Mansa (Akosua Amo-Adem) is a young woman from Ghana who moves to Toronto to work as a nanny/maid in the home of Leila (Sascha Cole) and Greg Tate (Peyson Rock). Wide-eyed with excitement over her new job, the prospect of living in a new place and her first plane ride, Akosua welcomes this change and adventure in her life. Leila and Greg are friendly and welcoming – with Leila fastidiously in charge of the household; she’s left her corporate job to work on a novel, and the house must run like clockwork. Greg is low maintenance by comparison, if not a bit clueless about the household routine, and often working after hours – and we come learn that he has other things occupying his mind. Soon, though, Akosua finds things are not so easy-going in the Tate house, as she finds herself working without pay for several months, then having to choose between getting paid and going home for a visit during the Christmas holiday (which, as a Muslim, she doesn’t celebrate). And Leila successfully manages to manipulate day-to-day activities so Akosua has no unaccompanied access to the outside world – and she’s taken possession of Akosua’s passport. Rather than wallow in her misfortune, Akosua uses her intellect and power of observation to turn her situation around.

Williams and Scott (who both also provide voice-overs for the play) have assembled an outstanding cast for this production. Amo-Adem is a delight as Akosua, giving us a young woman embarking on a great adventure who is animated and excited, yet solidly possessing of strength and resolve. This exuberant young woman is no push-over; she may be new to her position and to Canada, but she is nobody’s fool, and unapologetically asserts her rights when she finds herself being cheated of freedom and wages. Cole does a lovely job with Leila’s complex layers; tightly wound and controlling, and extremely entitled, but desperately lonely – and with a jealous streak. She does a remarkable job with the backhand compliments and ethno-cultural faux pas, which serve to highlight that, while Leila is interested in – and even attracted to (Greg is half black) – the black community and culture, she views it as “other” and sees black people as stereotypical “exotic” creatures, and has little to no respect for, or understanding of, their history and lived experience. Rock does an amazing job conveying the multifaceted aspects of Greg; he is largely absent from his marriage and has a laissez faire attitude towards the household – his interest in the goings-on in his home only piqued when he feels his position is threatened. Beneath the affable, good-natured, hard-working husband exterior is a man squirming with inner conflict and secret passions.

Better Angels: A Parable is nicely bookended, with Akosua’s personal anecdote at the top of the play about a getting a childhood lesson in the unfairness of the world, and her closing piece of storytelling about the West African spider god Anansi turning the tables on Death.

With shouts to the set (Laura Gardner, who also designed costumes) and lighting (Jennifer Lennon) designers for the beautiful and evocative spider theme used in this production. The yellow fabric placed web-like floor to ceiling and along the floor, and the lighting effect on the wall of Akosua’s tiny attic room – all in all, highly effective and imaginative design and staging for this production, especially on so small a playing space.

Better Angels: A Parable is a compelling morality tale of modern-day slavery and a young woman’s action to regain her freedom.

Better Angels: A Parable continues at the TPM Backspace until Aug 16 – check here for exact dates and times. Advance booking or early arrival at the box office strongly recommended – they had a full house at yesterday’s performance.

SummerWorks: Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order & mental illness in Complex

complexBumped into actor Tim Walker at the Lower Ossington Theatre on the weekend and found out about Complex, written by Rebecca Applebaum and directed for SummerWorks by Christopher Stanton in partnership with the Koffler Centre of the Arts – and I’m really glad I did.

Set in modern-day Toronto, the title makes multiple references: the Chalkfarm apartment that Darren (Mazin Elsadig) shares with his mother Althea (Beryl Bain); complex number theory, which Darren is playing catch-up on with tutor Sarah (Emily Piggford); and the relationships between Sarah and her live-in boyfriend Jonah (Tim Walker), who’s living with OCD, as well as Darren and his mother, who is suffering from severe depression after the death of her mother – and, as the play unfolds, between Darren and Sarah.

The story in Complex features stark contrasts of class divide, illustrated by the assumptions Sarah makes about Darren’s neighbourhood, activities and relationship with his mother, and about mental illness – both Sarah and Darren struggle to understand the conditions of their respective loved ones. While Sarah and Darren long for order in their lives, Jonah and Althea occupy a different world, grappling with their own inner demons and realities.

Excellent work from this cast! Bain is heartbreaking as the bereft Althea, lost in her grief and confused by her son’s anger and frustration at her debilitating desolation; and Elsadig does a lovely job balancing Darren’s youthful energy with the more adult burdens of looking after his mother – and the conflicting emotions therein. Piggford’s Sarah, like Darren, is frustrated with her loved one’s mental condition, even as she struggles to be supportive and understanding; and she does a great – at times comic – job of capturing the behaviours of an educated, privileged young adult trying to be chill with a low-income teen from a troubled neighbourhood. Walker’s Jonah is a good guy with an infuriating condition, obsessed with the apartment’s locks and fully aware of Sarah’s frustration, and trying to stay positive as he embarks on a group therapy program at CAMH.

Shouts to the design team: set (Laura Gardner), lighting (Siobhán Sleath) and sound (Lyon Smith) for creating the high-energy – at times overwhelmingly busy – urban atmosphere for Complex; the scrim-covered flats, built on PVC pipe frames and sprayed with graffiti, are particularly clever, delivering visual impact and creating cool shadow effects, as well as doubling as set pieces.

Complex is a beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, math theory and mental illness.

The show continues at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.