School siege dramatized on stage in Mirvish’s US/THEM
US/THEM tells the tragic story of the 2004 Beslan school siege from the point of view of the children inside. Not through the naive and innocent portrayal we most often see, but through the inquisitive, creative and detail-oriented child-like personalities that we all know and love. As the program states: “Children understand everything.”
US/THEM first premiered in Belgium in 2014 and has been performed all over the world in multiple languages. The English version is brought to Toronto by the BRONKS Theatre Company, Richard Jordan Productions and Off-Mirvish Theatre in the CAA Theatre.
For a little background on the event the play is based on: The Beslan school siege took place on September 1, 2004. A group of heavily armed terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, Russia. They took over 1200 children, parents and teachers hostage in the school gymnasium for three days, resulting in over 350 deaths.
Written by Carly Wijs, the program notes her inspiration from the HBO documentary Children of Beslan, as well as through conversations with her 9-year-old son, which piqued her interest in the ways that children absorb tragedy.
Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtve play children who tell of their experience in the school from a young and unfiltered lens. They argue and play, describing the events down to exact detail, making sure to correct each other down to the smallest of technicalities. It feels as if you are a police officer taking testimony from a young child who wants nothing more then to set the record straight.
Their characters are warm, energetic, creative and competitive. They try to calm their playful inner souls to understand the severity of the tragedy that they are in. At times, they debate if they think the terrorist would want the ten rubles in their piggy bank or the ten barbies that they own. They do this while keeping their hands above their heads due to terroristic demands.
Wijs’ direction for the work is a mix of movement and text. Choreography matches the text the performers speak. At times, movement is the only narrative, especially at more tragic moments when their voices are purposefully drowned out by loud music.
Parmentier and Van Houtve are great actors and movers. Both have training in dance, which is evident from their polished set movement sequences. They further demonstrate their agility as they duck under or jump over dozens of strings which criss-cross the stage like laser tripwire (like you might see in an action movie).
Stef Stessel‘s design transforms the bare stage into a chaotic scene, which changes the meaning of innocent child-like props, like balloons and chalk, into the serious scene that is the Beslan school grounds.
It’s hard to tell the story as anything but tragic, yet the play does a great job of pulling at your heartstrings in all the right ways, just like a child can. You’ll laugh at their child-like explanations and small games that they play, before being thrust back into the seriousness of the situation.
This work shines a light on the major problem the world is facing with the increase of school shootings but also how we might underestimate the children involved in these events and their understanding of them. A meaningful work for all young audiences and adults, yet maybe for different reasons!
- US/THEM is playing until March 15, 2020 at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge Street).
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8 pm, with an additional matinee on Wednesdays at 1:30 pm and Saturdays/Sundays at 2 pm.
- Ticket prices range from $39 to $99. Student pricing is $25.
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-872-1212, or in person at the box office.
Photo of Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven and by FKPH.