Victim Impact, which opened at The Cultch's Historic Theatre last night, is Theatre Conspiracy's latest work of documentary theatre. Written by TC's Artistic Producer, Tim Carlson, and directed by Jiv Parasram, it focuses on an elaborate Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Rashida Samji, an Ismaili notary public who became known as The Magic Lady after she convinced hundreds of people, including friends and members of her own family, to invest in a fictitious Okanagan wine company that was seeking to break into the South American and South African markets. Promising returns of up to 30% or more, Samji ended up bilking innocent folks out of their entire life savings.
The case has been wending its way through the courts for years, with Samji's final appeal to the Supreme Court only having recently been rejected. Much of Carlson's script is based on the court transcripts, supplemented by dramatizations of interviews with several of her victims, here represented by an angry chorus of four played by Jenn Griffin, Munish Sharma, Risha Nanda, and Allan Morgan. We are first introduced to this group as backlit silhouettes speaking from behind a series of interlocking screens, an effective visual conceit for telegraphing the need to protect their anonymity as well as the fact that for Samji they were presumably just interchangeable marks. Paradoxically, however, it means that, as characters, the victims of Victim Impact register largely as hazy ciphers for whom it is difficult to muster much empathy. Sure, we do get individual monologues in which we learn some of the heartbreaking personal details behind each of their stories: that Morgan's farmer was tricked out of his retirement savings; that Nanda's graduate student had to give up on her dream of earning her Master's degree, and also watch as her parents withdrew from their community in shame. But in terms of dramatic function, the choral scenes with the victims are mostly expository, telling us what did--or as often as not, what didn't--happen next.
By contrast, I had no problem conjuring sympathy for Samji, who is superbly played by Nimet Kanji, nor for her friend, the financial planner Arvin Patel (Sharma, also excellent) whom Samji dupes into becoming her stoodge, working from his desk at Coast Capital to lure in many of Samji's investors. In part this is because we are given scenes early on in the action in which we witness Samji and Patel, both physically and emotionally vulnerable, themselves being preyed upon. Then, too, Carlson's script works hard to lay bare the many complex ties binding Vancouver's South Asian community that are also at play in this story, with the murky fixer apparently pressuring Samji in turn forcing her to turn the screws against Patel. That in Samji's case the "man from the Congo," along with the whole bounced cheque from England that started her down this path of fraud, are very likely pure fiction only makes more psychologically interesting her need to come clean in her courtroom testimony, which Kanji delivers with a compelling mixture of suspense and relief.
At the same time, the court scenes also showcase a problem with adhering too scrupulously to the principles of verbatim theatre. Specifically, the trope of having Morgan's defence lawyer repeatedly object to the questions put to Samji by Griffin's prosecuting lawyer, each time citing the same article under the Canadian and BC criminal codes, got terribly wearying. But for the additional mix of sound and visuals in this scene courtesy of the projections by Milton Lim and the accompanying aural cues by David Meisha, I would have stopped paying attention altogether. At other times, in seeking to enliven some of the financial minutiae relating to this case, the creators adopt an overtly burlesque style, as with Sharma's soft shoe routine in the historical anecdote about the real Carlo Ponzi, and later when Sharma and Nanda explain how the banks at the heart of this scandal have sought to recover the money embezzled by Samji, only then to claw back a percentage of that in order to cover their own fees. But for me, these scenes actually served to point up all the more the earnestness of the rest of the storytelling.
I don't wish to diminish the very real pain--financial and otherwise--at the heart of this story, nor the investments of the artistic team in telling that story. I'm just not sure that the how of that telling makes for the most absorbing theatre. Indeed, given the format's success in engaging listeners with serial presentations of true crime stories, I wonder if the podcasts (or "fraudcasts") that Carlson and dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty have developed to accompany the show aren't in fact where the real drama of Victim Impact lies.