Review: The Archivist (Why Not Theatre)

archivistbythelake

Why Not Theatre presents a moving and introspective one-woman show in Toronto

The Archivist is, quite literally, a memory play. Onstage now at the Theatre Centre, and produced by Why Not Theatre, Shaista Latif guides the audience through her memories. She interacts with us and with her past, creating a dialogue with many voices and perspectives. In Latif’s disjointed but always coherent narrative, the only questions worth asking are those that can either be immediately and concretely answered or cannot be answered at all.

Questions that can be immediately, concretely answered are things like “Can you remember what you ate for breakfast?” and “Do you know the French version of the Canadian anthem?” On opening night the audience was game, detailing meals, standing to sing, and otherwise fully engaging. The show is better for it, and I encourage all to attend and speak up when Latif sends out a query.

Memory, particularly of childhood, is fallible, irrational, coloured by missing pieces, by what you’ve learned since, by other memories that lurk underneath but never show their faces to your consciousness. Yet it is the most important thing: it is the only way to gain knowledge. Latif tells us about growing up in a crowded home of immigrants, about running away to live in a shelter as a teen, but she gives us the feel of her life along with the facts. She uses the technology at her disposal — projections, lighting, sound effects — as well as a vocal repetition technique that is strangely soothing, even when disturbing. I have the idea that Latif would do an excellent reading of the original Grimm’s fairy tales, in all their poetic violence.

Part of Latif’s dilemma is that she’s reaching for memories that are not her own. Her parents came to Canada from Afghanistan, by way of New Dehli, while Latif was in utero; her grandmother was a child bride to her grandfather: these are memories she wants to understand but can only construct a version of, using her considerable theatrical skill. Her longing to, and failing to, situate herself in a history, and in a nationality, is palpable and affecting.

I’m not sure why the projection screen was flanked by reflective sheets (the same material also hangs separately mid-way through the stage and is used effectively for one moment) and there was a metronome that I found overused (granted, my sensitivity to noise is stronger than most – I shower in the dark because my bathroom fan comes on with the light and I cannot stand the sound.) These are the kind of quibbles I have when a show is this powerful.

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Photo of Shaista Latif by Amanda Geensen