Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ali and Ali 7 at the Cultch

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.



glv said...

Hey Peter,

Thanks for the thoughful response to our show. I wonder if I could ask you to elaborate. I don't quite understand the distinctions between types of political satire and the connection to Canadian domestic and foreign politics (in the final paragraph). I'm not writing to quibble; Marcus, Camyar and I are always looking for intelligent reflection that can help us develop the show.


Peter Dickinson said...

Hi Guillermo,

Thanks for your comment. Re the final paragraph, I was just speculating out loud on whether the sort of comedic satire that seems to go hand-in-hand with American politics works in the Canadian context. It's not that I believe the detainee scandal and the indiscriminate use of security certificates should be treated with kid gloves. But I do wonder about differences in the national-cultural comedic temperament here in Canada that maybe account for our penchant for different levels of irony vs. outright satire. There are, for example, noticeable qualitative differences between the Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour, and the Rick Mercer Report and Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert. Maybe this has to do with a Canadian politeness and political passivity that needs to be shaken up by the Ali and Alis of this world; or maybe it has something to do with the parliamentary system we share with the UK (the satire of Spitting Image and Yes, Minister is pretty biting, to be sure, but also vaguely homilitic).

Then, too, race overlays so many of these questions re US political comedy in ways that Canada would prefer to sidestep. I mean, Little Mosque on the Prairie is all about tolerance and wholesome entertainment. Imagine the scandal at the CBC were a plot about sleeper cells to be introduced!

All of this was in the back of my mind as I watched your show and tried to account for what I frankly found was a really confusing balance of tone. Just when I thought you would go for the comedic jugular re current Canadian foreign policy, the show seemed to retreat to the strange safety of domestic melodrama. Not that Ali Hakim's monologue about his family isn't moving; it just seemed anomalous in the context of what had preceded it.

Why is Stephen Harper in that opening slide show, and later in the puppet show in the White House? Presumably because he's worthy of Ali and Ali's inestimable skewering. I kept waiting for this to happen--especially re things like his cavalier proroguing of parliament (twice) and the ongoing detainee scandal (which, admittedly, you did allude to through Sukhwindar's heavily censored evidence against Ali and Ali). But, it seemed to me, that whereas George W was an easy--and fitting--main target in your first show, the target that ostensibly should have been in your sights here, ie Stephen H, was awkwardly displaced onto Obama and Laara's character, whose gender and ethnicity again complicate this displacement in interesting ways.

I'm blathering on, right now, but you asked for elaboration, and for what it's worth, here it is.



glv said...


This is useful. Thanks. We are still (always) working on the show, and your thoughts here are helpful as we try to determine what we're really trying to get at, and where we need to go next.

It's interesting ... re. national differences in comedic style. When we played the last show in the States, in Seattle, a few years ago, audiences were ecstatic. They (generally) responded much more directly, forcefully, and enthusiastically than most audiences in Canada. This may have had as much to do with the content (all about the US administration and US War on Terror) as the perhaps more US style approach.