Review: Unsafe (Canadian Stage)

Sook-Yin Lee presents a visceral exploration on censorship in art, at the Berkeley Theatre in Toronto

Unsafe, on stage now at the Berkeley St Theatre, is a rather unique theatrical experience. Told in a documentary style format, this performance features multimedia artist, filmmaker, former MuchMusic VJ and host of CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera, Sook-Yin Lee in a candid and revealing exploration of censorship in art. To say that this show is edgy and provocative barely scratches the surface. And yet, beneath the surface, what remains is convoluted.

Unsafe starts with a conversation that Lee had with former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn who, having recently traveled to France, learned of a new law that passed preventing censorship in art. Jocelyn had commissioned a piece on censorship by playwright Jordan Tannahill who ended up turning the offer down. Jocelyn then approached playwright and filmmaker Zack Russell with the project who accepted and then brought Lee on as a co-collaborator.

From this point, Unsafe takes takes us on a journey down two different roads. One is the documentary style work that Lee has done to explore how censorship has affected artists in their creation and presentation of their work. On the other hand, the performance also focuses greatly on the journey it took to create the piece on stage now. Namely, the highs and lows of co-collaborating, and how, ultimately, Russell got called away for another production and the role of Russell is performed by actor Christo Graham, and what was originally a co-creation turned into a project of one.

And I guess that’s where I mostly found myself lost with Unsafe. The points made in the interviews speak on censorship from varying sides of the argument. My date for the show Vance pointed out quite frankly that for a show called Unsafe, the choices that were made actually felt rather safe. The points made are valid but I fail to see what actual conclusions were being made. This is most likely in order to provoke further discussion from the audience. Juxtaposing these points with the struggle to actually create and perform this exact show that we were watching made for a ride that felt uncertain and unfinished.

That, is, however, not to say that we didn’t find the show enjoyable. On the surface it is, Lee and Graham are wonderful performers and they play off each other well. Though, yes, Graham is credited in the program as the actor portraying Russell, the audience commented that they didn’t know that he wasn’t actually Russell. Lee has a natural knack for audience engagement, it’s a knack that captured my attention when she was hosting MuchMusic in the 90’s and it’s captured me again now.

Director Sarah Garton Stanley with lighting designer Steve Lucas, video designer Roxanne Luchak, and set designer Christine Urquhart, have put together a production that is visually stunning to behold from the use of the headless interviewee to Christo and Lee’s interactions with projections on an otherwise very minimal stage.

If the main purpose of Unsafe is to provoke dialogue on the topic of censorship, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions, then they certainly accomplished that. Vance and I discussed and deconstructed this show for hours. Though we did draw different conclusions on the actual subject matter, we agreed on the show — it’s fun and entertaining to watch but we both wanted the subject matter to dig deeper. This discussion doesn’t feel complete.

Details:

  • Unsafe is playing at the Berkeley St Theatre (26 Berkeley St) until March 31 2019.
  • Performances run Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm (Fridays at 7:00 pm) with Wednesday matinees at 1:00 pm and weekend matinees at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets range from $29 to $79 and can be purchased online, over the phone by calling 416 368 3110 or in person at the box office.
  • Run Time: One hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
  • Audience Advisory: This performance contains, nudity, coarse language, and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.

Photo of Christo Graham and Sook-Yin Lee by Dahlia Katz