The Road to Damascus (To Hell and Back Company) 2019 Toronto Fringe Review

Photo of Daniel Coo and Ethan Saulnier by David Eden

What would convince a young man brought up in a western country to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State, or worse, to plot a terror attack at home? The Road to Damascus, by Swiss playwright Dominique Ziegler, examines that question. The English-language premiere of the play (translated by David Eden) is currently being presented by To Hell and Back Theatre Company at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Taking place in the present day at a police station in suburban France, the play is a taut two-hander; a back-and forth sparring match between an old cop (Daniel Coo) and a young man (Ethan Saulnier), a French national who has been arrested on suspicions he is planning to join an Islamic fundamentalist group.

I thought the technical elements of the production were well-executed, as director David Eden keeps the pace tight and the tension high throughout. He’s helped immensely by the strong performances by his cast; Daniel Coo’s wily older cop is evenly matched with Ethan Saulnier’s defiant young detainee.

But the main focus of the show is Ziegler’s script. This is one of those plays that is set up as a construct where the characters exist primarily to embody two sides of an argument. In this case, yes, we all agree the terror perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists is deplorable but isn’t the horror wreaked by Western imperialism, like drone strikes on civilians, equally terrible?

While there are parts of the back-and-forth between the two characters that come tantalizingly close to striking at the core of that philosophical debate—like the moment where the Young Guy compares the public beheadings perpetrated by the Islamic State to the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution—in the end, I don’t think those ideas are fleshed-out enough nor do I think the debate is rigorous enough in the script.

In particular, I thought the way the character of the Young Guy was written didn’t really shed light into the psyche of a “home grown terrorist” and fell back on surface-level caricature instead of really examining why somebody like that radicalizes.

I really wanted the script to delve deeper and grapple with more complex questions and unsettling comparisons. For a play billed as “controversial,” I went in expecting to have my world view challenged a bit but found the way the debate unfolded and the eventual resolution in The Road to Damascus a little too neat.

Details

  • The Road to Damascus plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Ave.)
  • Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
  • Content Warnings: Not recommended for persons under 14 years of age, Gunshots, Graphic Violence, Mature Language
  • This venue is wheelchair-accessible
  • Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.

Performances

  • Friday, July 5th, 6:45pm
  • Sunday, July 7th, 10:00pm
  • Monday, July 8th, 4:15pm
  • Tuesday, July 9th, 7:00pm
  • Wednesday, July 10th, 8:15pm
  • Friday, July 12th, 4:15pm
  • Saturday, July 13th, 2:45pm

Photo of Daniel Coo and Ethan Saulnier by David Eden

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