Those hilarious Agrabanian showmen and shrewd foreign policy analysts Ali and Ali are back. Five years after skewering George W. Bush and the war on terror in a biting piece of political theatre--Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil--that was also drop-dead funny, co-writers and co-stars Camyar Chai (Ali Hakim) and Marcus Youssef (Ali Ababwa), along with fellow co-writer and director Guillermo Verdecchia, are taking on Bush Jr.’s successor in the White House, you know, the black dude with the Muslim-sounding middle name.
But audiences attending the Neworld Theatre production of Ali and Ali 7: Hey Brother, Can You Spare Some Hope & Change (on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s Historic Theatre until April 24th) expecting to see Barack Obama ripped into on the housing crisis, or health care, or climate change, should be forewarned. Despite its title, the play is only tangentially concerned with the reconfigured American political landscape since November 2008. Having said this, Obama’s election does occasion two of the show’s wittiest and most expressly theatrical sequences: a Bunraku-inflected domestic scene that pokes fun at Obama as a beacon of hope to all the “brown” peoples of the world; and an expletive-laden, projected shadow puppet sketch involving Obama, his collective “revolutionary conscience,” Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and Stephen Harper in a rap about keeping the White House black.
Stephen Harper’s image here and elsewhere in the show, including its opening—and of course requisite—video tribute to Muammar Gaddafi, provides the clue as to the real subject of Ali and Ali’s political satire this time round: Canadian foreign policy, and in particular the country’s very American-style use of “security certificates” to detain—often in solitary confinement—or deport mostly Muslim men without charges and without providing the men or their lawyers access to the evidence against them. This is precisely the situation Ali and Ali find themselves in when a “rabid fan” of their work (the always wonderful Laara Sadiq) reveals herself to be an undercover RCMP officer, one Sukhvindar Dhaliwal. With but a brief wave of her ever-handy taser, Dhaliwal transforms the space of the theatre into a government tribunal and conscripts Ali and Ali’s all-purpose Chinese sidekick, Yogi Roo (Raugi Yu), to serve as their counsel.
Thereafter the play juxtaposes the legalese of Dhaliwal’s trumped-up and misappropriated evidence (much is made of their obsession with the movie A Few Good Men) with Ali and Ali and Yogi’s playing out of the “fictional reality” of their suspicious behavior (most of what shows up on the RCMP’s radar turns out to be “research” for the boys’ latest television pilot or newest idea for a play). In this way, Ali and Ali 7 succeeds in making some very interesting formal parallels between theatrical performance and juridical performatives, with the court of law’s precedent-based structure here revealed to routinely—and rather undemocratically—circumscribe who gets to be named a citizen and who a refugee, or a terrorist. However, in terms of overall tone, the play is also rather schizophrenic, with the gravity of the situation facing one of the Alis (I won’t say which one) leading to some very intense moments of high dramatic pathos that don’t always work alongside the more ribald and satiric sketch comedy scenes.
Then, too, I’m not sure if Canadian domestic and foreign policy (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not defending under Herr Harper) lends itself to the sort of political satire that worked so well re the USA in the first Ali and Ali show. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is not Politically Incorrect and Rick Mercer is not Bill Maher. I fully support the production of topical political theatre in Canada, and I generally eschew overt earnestness on stage. But it seems to me that, this time around, Ali and Ali haven’t fully figured out what they want to say, and how they want to say it.