Thursday, January 25, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Events at the Russian Hall

David Greig's The Events, currently being mounted by Pi Theatre at the Russian Hall as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is inspired by Anders Breivik's 2011 mass killing of young camp goers on the island of Utøya in Norway. In adapting those horrific events for the stage, the Scottish Greig has at once made the story more particular and more universal, focusing on an individual survivor, but also refusing to specify her nationality or where she lives. With the aid of composer John Browne, Greig also incorporates a series of rotating community choirs into the play's mise-en-scène, ensuring that wherever the play is staged it will have direct local resonance.

Claire (Luisa Jojic) is a liberal lesbian minister and choir leader who is struggling to come to terms with a random act of violence that has resulted in the deaths of most of her flock, and that has made her question the very foundations of her faith. This aftermath is framed by an opening scene in which we see Claire, in the middle of conducting her choir, welcome a young boy (Douglas Ennenberg) into the church. "You don't have to sing," she says by way of encouragement. "Nobody wants to sing every day." What follows is Claire's desperate and soul-shattering struggle to make sense of the actions wrought by this boy, and to make her way back to a place where she herself might one day be able to sing again. Along the way she seeks but fails to find answers from a host of characters who are either concerned for her own well-being (her therapist, her partner) or who knew the boy (his father, an acquaintance from high school, the leader of a far right party whose ideology the shooter briefly flirted with). All of these characters are incarnated by the same actor playing the boy and Ennenberg's loose and easy physicality, combined with subtle modulations in voice and tone, makes each of them both distinguishable and believable.

It is, of course, belief that Claire is looking for--something, anything, to explain what, as a woman of God, she can't bring herself to accept is unexplainable. But Greig wisely resists offering Claire, or us, pat homilies. In scene after scene, Claire chases after that which will confirm her worst convictions about the boy: that he was abused as a child; that he was picked on at school; that he was blinded by extremist ideology. But in these encounters what Claire is actually forced to confront are the limits of her own naïveté and rigidly moralistic worldview. To her expression of unknowing horror at the protocols of bullying, the high school acquaintance of the boy says that she was obviously extremely popular growing up. And she is flummoxed by the fact that the leader of the far right party whose meetings the boy occasionally attended is a family man who completely disavows what the boy has done. Greig also ramps up the dramatic tension by slowly revealing that Claire's obsession with the boy's motives masks a far more painful self-examination that would force her to confront the rightness of her own actions on the night of the shooting. In this, it is worth noting that performance and trauma share a similar structuring principle: repetition. Every time we see Claire replay the events of the shooting, Jojic's increasingly manic desperation--which director Richard Wolfe, working with movement designer Jo Leslie, cannily externalizes in physical actions that have no purpose, or that go nowhere--inches us at once closer to and then away from the horrible truth of what happened in the music room, where Claire and Mrs. Singh find themselves staring down the barrel of the boy's gun.

As is often the case in these situations, the truth after which Claire and the audience have been questing for most of the play ends up being banal--or, rather, "silly," to quote the boy, whom Claire eventually visits in prison. She has gone there with the express purpose of poisoning him (the only implausible note in the play), her nihilism now so total and complete as to be a match for his own. But the emptiness of his answers to her repeated queries of "why?" once again upends her certitude--this time in a bottomless well of pure evil. Not that Greig leaves us with an Arendtian equivocation on the singularity of remorse (or lack thereof). For into the void of the boy's culpability and Claire's own guilt, Greig and Browne fill the performance hall with the collective catharsis of song. Here, as Wolfe writes in his program note, the play's creators are taking us back to the very origins of Western tragedy, with the Chorus in Greek drama functioning as "both spectator and performer."

Thus it was that last night Vancouver's Cyrilika Slavic Chamber Choir, under the direction of Emilija Lale, at once completed the fourth side of Wolfe's in-the-round staging and also seamlessly melded into the action of the play. Each of the twelve volunteer choirs participating over the course of this production's run receive a copy of the script and musical score in advance. But they rehearse on their own, meeting with music supervisor Mishelle Cuttler only once, and only encountering the actors (and vice-versa) on the night of their scheduled performance. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking this is for all concerned in terms of coordination; at the same time, watching the choir watching what we were watching had the reverberating effect of binding us all in an act of witnessing that apportioned some of the weight of Claire's trauma to the other bodies in the room. This is, of course, the power of song: it travels through time and space, and from body to body, actively moving us with its force and energy. Physically registering this sense of connection and obligation--a choir per force being the sum of its individual voices--is what makes this production of The Events so eventful.


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