The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

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SummerWorks: The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in beautiful & compelling The Living

Cast of The Living, photo by Paul Lampert
Cast of The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

How can we move on if we can’t accept the impossible?

Brown paper, like fallen leaves, strewn across the floor – a struggling landscape. Two shrouded bodies, still, unbreathing – the dead. This is the sight on the playing area as you enter the Theatre Centre Incubator space – the stage set for the premiere of Colleen Wagner’s The Living, directed by Ines Buchli for the living project in this SummerWorks run.

The play is dedicated to the women and girls of Rwanda who Wagner met during her travels in Africa – and who asked her to be their storyteller. To tell of what happened after the genocide. The rebuilding. The caring for orphans. The system of transformative justice whereby “perpetrator” becomes part of the “victim’s” life in a new, positive relationship dynamic – healing, reconciling. And maybe even finding redemption and forgiveness.

Anita La Selva in The Living - photo by Paul Lampert
Anita La Selva in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

Jacqui (Miriam Fernandes) and Henry (Kaleb Alexander) have known each other since they were children, and their memories of their times together take a brutal turn when, on opposite sides of the genocide, Henry becomes a “perpetrator” and Jacqui becomes a “victim.” Henry saves her from the killers only to become part of the rabid mob that kills Jacqui’s father and brother, and one man – a neighbour – rapes her mother (Anita La Selva), leaving her infected with HIV. But then something impossible happens. Henry and Jacqui fall in love.

The Living Beryl Bain Wayne Ward Stephanie Jung photo by Paul Lampert
Beryl Bain, Wayne Ward & Stephanie Jung in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

The community is in a brittle, fragile state as formerly imprisoned men return home, some still harbouring anger and hate, simmering in their perceptions of the wrong-doing and culpability of the people they sought to exterminate. Three spirits– murdered teenage sisters – emerge on the scene. Restless. Living their deaths over and over again. Played with startling intensity by Beryl Bain, Gabrielle Graham and Stephanie Jung; like the Furies, they haunt, taunt, whisper and hiss for the truth.

Lovely work from this ensemble. Fernandes (luminous in her positive demeanour and fearlessness as Jacqui) and Alexander (repentant and sheepish as Henry, pushing beyond his deep sense of shame towards love) have beautiful chemistry, their conversations taking on a lyrical, poetic tone; two young people struggling to rebuild their lives after the horrors – striving, but hopeful to live in peace. La Selva is heartbreaking as Jacqui’s mother; sick and broken, waiting for death and afraid of facing it alone. As their neighbour Leopold, Wayne Ward brings a complexity of character; bitter and unrepentant after serving his time in prison, he hides with his fear at the bottom of a bottle, leaving his wife with the burden of being the household breadwinner. Cindy Block gives a poignant performance as his wife, a woman once abandoned by her husband’s violence and now abandoned by his hatred of the world, desperately trying to make ends meet as she lives in denial of her own horrid memories and suspicions.

Françoise Balthazar is marvelous and strong as the local barkeep, now running the business alone as her husband continues serving time in jail. Tough-talking and suffering no fools, she is hurt and lonely – and, like her neighbour, feeling the guilt and shame of not speaking up during the rampage to try and stop it. Richard Lee does a nice job with the layers of the town preacher, a  man who has chosen a life of religious service as his path to redemption. His words of love and forgiveness are not entirely selfless, though – including his interest in Jacqui, which while somewhat comical, has a dark edge to it.

And the multicultural casting has the effect of placing this story beyond the borders of any one country, any single ethnicity. The atrocities and the aftermath could happen anywhere.

With shouts to Shawn Kerwin (set and costume design) and Erika Batdorf (movement).

The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in Colleen Wagner’s beautiful and compelling premiere of The Living.

The Living continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – check here for the detailed schedule.