Having watched arguments rage about whether Chelsea Manning did right or wrong in releasing classified army information, and further arguments about whether she’s entitled to her own gender and name, I came to Unknown Soldier at SummerWorks curious. I wasn’t sure what Jonathan Seinen, better known as an actor, would choose to pull out of the tonnage of media coverage and rumor and grainy photography, but I was so pleasantly surprised by his work in this. Unknown Soldier is outstanding.
His efforts are aided enormously by the marvelous Jeff Ho, who plays Manning. The duo – and in this case, it’s difficult to pull out exactly where each of them made which choice – create a narrative of voice that thrilled me. The play they’ve made is all about what’s said and what’s elided, what is spoken where and why, and how her actual vocalizations shift as her gender does. It moves the piece from a recitation of facts to a story that’s also a allegory about how any individual chooses to speak, or speak up.
The play moves fludily through time, using a fairly bare stage and a small number of costume pieces, with blocking and lighting to help the scenes shift. The blocking approaches, and sometimes gives into, choreography, as Manning struts and frets in captivity and freedom alike.
While the emotional tone of the piece veers all over the map, Ho’s acting makes every change legible – we see him decide, we see him lose faith, we see him struggle and capitulate and struggle and succeed. His physical acting and voice control are superlative as he moves us through Manning’s decision-making processes; he both shows and tells in compelling ratio. Despite having overcommitted my day to the point of comedy, I didn’t glance at my watch once.
The piece finishes, emotionally and linearly, just as Manning is about to be sentenced. It’s the only choice I wasn’t sure about at first. Just afterwards I thought perhaps there was more story worth telling, that perhaps they’d ended prematurely. As the piece has settled, though, I feel more like Seinen made the right choice – every bit of the show is also in some way about hope, about possibility, and ending when they did allows the play to retain a sense that there’s more left to say, or not say, even if we don’t know how those choices will roll. I was surprised to have liked this as much as I did, but Seinen and Ho have made something very special with Unknown Soldier.
Unknown Soldier plays at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) as part of the SummerWorks Festival.
Sunday August 10, 4:30pm
Monday August 11, 4:30pm (with post-show talk)
Tuesday August 12, 9:00pm
Wednesday August 13, 9:30pm
Thursday August 14, 6:30pm (with post-show talk)
Friday August 15, 9:30pm
Saturday August 16, 5:00pm
All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, By phone by calling the Ticketwise Call Centre at 416-907-0468, in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) August 5th-17th from 10AM – 7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows
Photo of Jeff Ho provided by the company