Summerworks 2009: Underneath – Praxis Theatre

by Lucy Allen

I always find it interesting how our expectations affect our enjoyment of a play. After hearing about Praxis Theatre’s Underneath, currently playing in the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Summerworks Festival, I walked in nervously expecting a brutal, unforgiving look at postwar Kosovo. The subject matter alone had the potential to leave one feeling disturbed and guilty. And yet, upon leaving the theatre, I felt oddly detached from what I had just seen.

Underneath is a drama set in Orahovac, the mortuary created in Kosovo to examine and identify executed bodies buried throughout the country. It follows the stories of the employees within the morgue, all from a variety of countries and all with their own agendas for being in Kosovo.

I will admit I am not entirely familiar with the history of the play. At the time of the wars, I was in elementary school, and while I had heard names such as Kosovo and Bosnia thrown around, I was mostly in the dark for what was actually going on. The program of the show provides a timeline of events that led to the forensic investigation, which helped a bit.

Underneath has the potential to be an excellent show. It deals with heavy and interesting subject matter, and does have a few moments of clarity that got me thinking. Unfortunately, it can’t seem to focus on any one topic for too long, and ends up getting bogged down in its own exposition and multiple plot threads.

My show partner, Jane, and I discussed long into the night afterwards a myriad of plot and stage devices that might have worked, but in the end it boiled down to focus. Writer Andrew Zadel tries to tackle a lot of themes for an hour long play, and it leaves a scattered result. Characters were never entirely fleshed out, their motivations seemed confusing and contradictory at points, and in the end I didn’t feel particularly attached to them.

Whenever something did get interesting, for instance one character being randomly attacked for being Serbian, the scene would immediately shift elsewhere. I was confused and eager to find out what exactly happened to her. But it was never really revisited except for a brief mention in a later scene. Nor did she seem very affected by the incident. Then just as the characters began discussing it she was promptly kicked out of the scene so that the play could move elsewhere.

The actors make a valiant attempt at the various accents required of the characters. One interesting choice that was made and the one that I agreed with was making the two Albanian characters speak in an accent when attempting English and then speaking in a neutral tone to indicate when they were speaking Albanian. Jane found this distracting, but it worked well with my tastes.

The rest of the accents are a mixed bag, though, and the performances suffer as a result. Accents are a difficult thing to pull off, and the actors may have been concentrating too much on getting their accent correct instead of getting the full emotion of the scene.

But for all the unevenness, Underneath did succeed in that it left me wanting to know more. I wanted to know more about these characters, about the identities of the bones on the table, and the cultural clashes that ravaged the country. Perhaps if the playwright had chosen one or two themes to focus on, I might have felt more invested in the fates of the characters involved. There is a lot underneath the surface of Underneath, it just hasn’t quite been dug up yet.

Details:

Underneath is playing in the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Summerworks Theatre Festival.

-Showtimes:

August 9th– 2:30pm
August 11th– 6:30pm
August 13th– 10:30 pm
August 15th– 4:30pm
August 16th– 6:30pm

-Tickets are $10.

-Advance tickets can be bought in person at the Arts Box Office (located at Theatre Passe Muraille), online at http://www.artsboxoffice.ca/, or by phone at 416-504-7529.