Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

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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: Delightful, magical story time with Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales

children's talesThis year’s SummerWorks has been full of opportunities to see and hear some imaginative, unique pieces of storytelling – and Erin Fleck’s Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales, directed by Maya Rabinovitch, is a brilliant example.

A young man brings light to his darkened town. A very cranky pony named Heathcliff falls in love with the mistress of the household at his new home. A man named Sam is fascinated by the post. The ghost of a murdered young woman haunts an opulent underwater ballroom.

The audience is enveloped in the atmosphere of story time; the Studio of the Lower Ossington Theatre has been transformed into a large tent made from bed sheets, with quilts, blankets and cushions creating part of the audience seating space on the floor, and a small table with a lamp and various curios. An overhead projector presents several images, with multiple transparencies causing images to morph: three stag heads become three stag skulls; a clock appears and dissolves; and a cuckoo clock materializes, followed by framed pictures, a window and a table in a quiet room.

Then, using transparencies and overhead projection, and paper articulated shadow puppets, four tellers retrieve a sheaf of paper from various places in the room and read the stories. And they are marvelous – the stories and the storytellers. With shouts to puppeteers/tellers Talia DelCogliano, Erin Fleck, Michelle Urbano and Brian Webber. The cast also includes a roster of guest narrators: Glyn Bowerman, Sascha Cole, Marcus Jamin and Jordi Mand (I believe Jamin was the guest last night).

With shouts to the design team: Sarah Fairlie, Fleck and Daniel Briere (puppets), Roxanne Ignatius (set) and Pip Bradford (lighting); and to Fairlie for video art direction and Brad Casey for music direction.

Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales is a delightful, magical piece of storytelling fun – quirky, darkly funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s one more performance: tonight (Sun, Aug 17) at 7 p.m.