Beautiful double bill tells powerful stories that have audiences both laughing and in tears
What is the price of safety? What must you leave behind forever in transit to a new life? Theatre Passe Muraille, in collaboration with Theatre Mada, raises these questions in Suitcase/Adrenaline, a timely double bill of one-act plays by Ahmad Meree, on the multilayered experiences of Syrian refugees.
Presented in Arabic with English surtitles (with some in-ear described performances available), the program invites us to meet these characters on their own terms.
Before the show, director Madji Bou-Matar warns that much of the culturally-specific humour, particularly in Suitcase, will be lost in translation. This was clearly the case, as audience members who identified themselves as Arabic speakers laughed in more places than those of us reading along.
However, I didn’t feel bereft for not knowing, merely secure in the knowledge that some things aren’t within my own experience. There is plenty for everyone to enjoy, regardless of language; very quickly, it’s clear that those who we might see as “the other” aren’t so different after all.
Suitcase presents us with a large handled version of the titular item, with shining draped fabrics framing the otherwise mostly empty space (set by Julia Kim). A married couple – subversive Muslim musician Samer (playwright Meree) and tenacious Christian reporter Razan (Nada Abusaleh) – flee their house a day late from the bombings. Now, they are stuck in a No Exit/Waiting For Godot-type liminal space, which may be a refugee holding centre, or, perhaps, something more classically purgatorial.
Wisely, the play doesn’t rely on a reveal of their true location for a climactic twist. Instead, it plays up the waiting game, allowing the two actors to bounce their love, frustrations, desires and sorrows off each other, as well as giant clouds of dust. The aesthetic here nods towards clown; physically at ease with each other, their exaggerated, deliberate movements and mundane squabbling bring much gentle humour to the forefront. Razan’s stock-still meditation contrasts delightfully with Samer’s manic energy.
The humour blends with their fears and doubts, which provide a dark, ominous undertone, underscored by mysterious occurrences and noises. The soundtrack (Janice Jo Lee) ebbs and flows, including both measured piano marking time’s passing, and loud crashes and screams from indeterminate sources. Chris Malkowski’s lighting makes angular pools on the floor.
Painful secrets come out as they imagine what the interrogation might look like to finally permit them to cross to the other side. Through these, we see the full complexity of the characters.
Their desire to create and resist bumps up painfully against the desire to lead a normal, quiet life; the desire to be heroic meets the reality of torture. Mostly, there’s an overwhelming sense of loss, expressed in terms of what they have forgotten to take with them. A section near the end, where Samer lists what will now be missing from their lives, is almost like poetry, an ode to the triggers of memory.
Both plays start with the sound of bombs dropping and lives splintering. However, if Suitcase is more subtle and metaphorical, the 35-minute Adrenaline is blunt, compact and direct, just the right length.
Like a bat to the tear ducts, it’s a little heavy-handed, but in an extremely emotionally-affecting way. A young Syrian man (Meree, acting solo), clearly having emigrated to Canada (he carries a Shopper’s bag and the spoils from his job at Pizza Pizza), is celebrating New Year’s Eve with effigies of the family he left behind the previous year.
In the simple, evocative design, common household items like a coatrack and fan are festooned with identifying clothing. He speaks with his “mother” and “father” and challenges his “brother” to a Playstation game. You can tell where the story is going immediately, but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing when it plays out, as fireworks soon bring bombs to mind and PTSD to the forefront.
His recreation of the bombing with food items is chillingly symbolic, as is the slow process of rebuilding; the furniture can be righted, but some destruction is irrevocable. A speech about seeing the humanity of loss rather than the numbers is not especially artful, but goes right to the gut; by the end, there almost certainly wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
As I gathered my things after the performance, the man next to me asked if I was writing a review. “Please tell people to see this show,” he said. “It’s so powerful.” I agreed with him.
The house for a show in Arabic with surtitles on a cold Wednesday night was quite small, which is a real shame – these are stories that need to be told, told well, and in an accessible way. Let them be told to as wide an audience as possible.
- Suitcase/Adrenaline plays at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave.) until February 1, 2020.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30PM, with 2:00PM Saturday matinees.
- Tickets are $17-38 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-504-7529, or in person at the Theatre Box Office.
- The plays deal with mature themes. A strobe light is briefly used. See website for details on relaxed and in-ear translation performances.
Photo of Ahmad Meree by Peter Riddihough