Given the choice, would you rather have the freedom to assemble and associate with whomever you please OR the freedom to travel internationally? Such is the final question posed to audience members in Theatre Conspiracy's new show, Foreign Radical, on at the Vancity Culture Lab through next Saturday. But before we answer this question--and answer we must--we are tasked with making a series of other, equally complex and ethically challenging decisions.
Not only do these decisions have very immediate and real consequences for us within the conceptual parameters of the show (including being assembled into different groups based on our choices, or ushered mysteriously into different rooms), but also, we are led to believe, for Hesam (Aryo Khakpour), the alleged radical of the title, and detained under the auspices of a government watch list for being a suspected terrorist. Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly, because the show is immersive and interactive we must make our split-second decisions not just under the watchful eye of our genial host (Milton Lim), but also in front of each other. It is one thing to respond to a series of ethical prompts anonymously as part of a darkened proscenium audience by typing our answers into a video game console, as with Rimini Protokoll's Best Before, which ran at the Cultch in 2010 in a commission by the PuSh Festival. Theatre Conspiracy Artistic Director and Foreign Radical writer Tim Carlson, who has been very influenced by Rimini's particular brand of locally-inflected participatory theatre (he also worked on their 2011 production of 100% Vancouver), here ramps up the stakes by literally exposing the processes of data collection through which governments and corporations group us into good or bad citizens, good or bad consumers. We are not wont to think about such things when the interface is just us and our computer screen (as is the case as I type these words, with Google blogger no doubt tracking my every key stroke); however, faced with the embodied scrutiny of 15 other pairs of eyes, we may think twice about how we answer questions like whether or not we've viewed pornography in the last 24 hours; whether we regularly change our online passwords; if we've ever lied to security agents at the border.
Add to this the fact that based on our answers to the questions posed by our Host during this central section of the show we are then marshalled into different taped-off quadrants or opposing sides of the room, and one begins to understand how self-consciousness and second guessing based on where and beside whom folks end up standing becomes an added variable in this part of the show. Indeed, twice after a sequence of shufflings of bodies based on a succession of narrower and narrower questions the entire audience is then asked to identify among the assembled participants in one particular quadrant who looks the most paranoid (in our case, Elise) and who the most suspicious (Colin, though for a while it looked like it might be me). Because our ebullient and maximally energetic Host (who is played with an abundance of slick charm by Lim) presents all of this in the manner of a game show, we are somewhat seduced into treating this as all a bit of benign fun. However, things got really serious for me when we were showed four satirical Charlie Hebdo-style cartoons and had to choose one based on whether we found it the most offensive or the most funny. Easy enough if you can keep that choice to yourself. But when you have to not only move to a specific square based on that choice AND raise a colour-coded card identifying whether you found your cartoon funny or offensive, then, necessarily, you start to view your fellow audience members in a different light. It is in this way that Foreign Radical becomes much more than a simple agitprop indictment of surveillance culture and the contemporary security state. Carlson and his collaborators, including director Jeremy Waller (who participated with us as an audience member), strip the operations of ideology down to the level of the body: are you like me or not like me; are you with me or against me; do you share my values or not? Clap for yes; don't clap for no. It's a measure of how quickly this show got under my skin that, with each question posed, I was counting the claps.
Parallel to the audience's self-scrutiny, there is our judgment of Hesam, whose naked body, bent over a steel interrogation table, we encounter immediately upon entering the first room of the performance space (there are four of them in total). Several of us will reencounter him again, this time with his back strapped horizontally over the side of the table, his face upside down, denouncing our presence before him, telling us that, among other things, he would like to vomit in all of our faces. When Khakpour released his long arms from where they have been pinioned underneath the table, I winced, and it is sign of the actor's amazing kinaesthetic presence that even in those scenes where he is not speaking--of which there are several--I nevertheless felt something palpable (dignity, rage, resignation, despair, even a quiet joy) being communicated to me.
This, then, is the central paradox of Foreign Radical. Face to face with a body in pain, a body unlawfully and perhaps unjustly detained, we empathize with the person before us. But abstracted as data mined from different intelligence-gathering sources and the so-called forensic evidence found in his suitcase (plans in Arabic to build a bomb, anti-psychotic medication, boxcutters), we sit in cold judgment of the same body: is he a terrorist or not? The climax of the piece is a debate between audience members on this very topic. I was the spokesperson for the "con" side, and I'm pleased to say that we won the debate. Not that I take much comfort from that. For, if I'd answered the questions leading up to that point differently--or if the questions themselves had been different--I might have ended up on the other side.
The show ends with Hesam/Khakpour (he is both in and out of character at this point), accompanied by our ever-present Host, turning the tables and interrogating, or rather conversing with, two among us. This is done against a dually projected backdrop of a wide open expanse of desert plain and blue horizon. We have arrived at that final question about the freedom of collective assembly vs. the freedom of individual travel. The interrogations finish, the actors leave, and a door is opened. No instruction is given, but we are presented with one last choice. Do we leave one-by-one, or linger with the rest of the group to reflect on what we have just witnessed?
A suitably subtle ending to a very thoughtful show.