Theatre Review – Liza Balkan’s Out the Window

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The Theatre Centre’s annual Free Fall Festival is a showcase of experimental works, some more finished than others.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window is close to a full-scale production, and let’s hope that will happen very soon. The potency of the play did carry through despite actors being on script. Balkan says in her notes that the play was created to be read with minimal rehearsal, but I think she should consider having it memorized. The scripts are distracting over time.

But first for some background. On Aug. 9, 2000, at 1 am, Otto Vass, a 55-year-old father of 5, went to a 7/Eleven store in the Lansdowne area to get some BBQ sauce.  At first there was some altercation in the store. Then the police arrived. This is where Balkan comes in. Looking out her window, hence the title of the play, she saw the first two policemen beat Vass, who were then joined by the next two policemen. Four policemen with batons, and one dead Vass.

The play is about the vicissitudes of the justice system. It begins with the actual transcripts of the trial where prosecution witness Balkan is manhandled by the defence lawyer so as to discredit her truth. Then there is backtracking to the inquest where she at least gets her truth out.

The beauty of this play is the absence of a linear line. Balkan as a playwright is very unpredictable. For example, there is a scene where both the defence and prosecuting attorneys are present at a luncheon to answer Balkan’s questions post-trial as she does her research. Also included are six volunteer guests from the audience plus real food. The conversation is cynical to say the least with both men in casual conversation. The opposing views have disappeared into word play about the law. From this good-natured lunch, we then hear the policemen testify and the so-called “Blue Code of Silence” raises its head.

This unconventional approach, plus an excellent video component, make for a very disturbing play. Incidentally, via video, Balkan gets to slip in statistics of other deaths due to police overkill. Suffice it to say that the policemen in the Vass case were exonerated. After this experience, why would anyone get involved in the justice system?  (FYI, Balkan has an extensive website devoted to the case.)

Another ploy is to have excellent actor Julie Tepperman play Liza Balkan, and this third party approach lends credence to the objective view with Balkan functioning as director. When you have the likes of David Ferry for the defence, and R.H. Thompson for the prosecution, two of the best actors in the country, the former a malevolent imp, the latter Mr. Sobersides with no taste for the jugular, that makes for a powerhouse cast of contrasts. The young men who portray the policemen (who also cleverly enact the crisp and attentive waiters at the luncheon and other roles), are all very good, not to mention good-looking (Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray). Any juror is going to have to think twice about incarcerating these clean-living, wholesome-looking, mother’s favourites. Trevor Schwellnus has kept the set clean and workable, which also helps. One presumes the outstanding use of video is also Schwellnus’ contribution with its judicious mix of text and graphics.

Let’s hope that someone picks up this play for a long run, and keeps the cast intact.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window, (featuring Julie Tepperman, David Ferry, R.H. Thompson, Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray, directed by Liza Balkan), Theatre Centre’s Free Fall Festival, Mar. 17 to 25, 2012.