Theatre Review – Canadian Stage/Unsafe by Sook-Yin Lee

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Unsafe is billed as a performance documentary that is an inquiry into censorship and art in Canada. It is also the story of its own creation, as it were, because we follow how the idea behind Unsafe, grew into the show now being performed at the Berkeley. It is also, of course, something much more. Unsafe may fly off in tangents, and at times be unruly, but it is a fund of fascinating information that leads to provocative questions.

Polymath Sook-Yin Lee, who is credited as writer/creator of Unsafe, has a reputation as an interdisciplinary artist and media personality with a radical edge. Who better to construct a show about censorship and art? The initial idea came from former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, and Lee’s interview with him opens the show. Jocelyn had commissioned writer/director Zack Russell to create a play about the 1993 case of Toronto artist Eli Langer, whose paintings were confiscated from a gallery show by the police because they were deemed to be child pornography. Russell (who is listed as consultant on the project), in turn asked Lee to work with him, she representing the diversity card, so to speak. Through various circumstances, as outlined in the production, Lee ended up with the project.

The throughline of the play is the running conversation between Russell (actor Christo Graham) and Lee as they work through how they are going to treat the subject of censorship and art. Russell had already ruled out the writing of a conventional narrative. By default, documentary style was going to be their modus operandi. Unsafe is peppered with interviews Lee filmed with artists, critics and social theorists about censorship. A significant number were directly censored themselves, including Lee. From theatre pieces like Hair, Futz and Robert Lepage’s Slav, to forbidden indigenous music and the aborted TTC lightboard installation, the long arm of censorship has taken its toll. Some controversies just sneak delightfully into the show, such as one of the Russell/Lee conversations taking place with the two and a mannequin (Lee being naked), mirroring Manet’s seated trio in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863).

Photo by Dahlia Katz

The show is strongest when it sticks to the point. The brainstorming duo raises a plethora of intriguing issues as they grapple with the topic. The times when Lee goes into personal matters, such as the break-up of a long-term relationship, seems gratuitous. Director Sarah Garton Stanley has tried to instil a casual, folksy, unstudied quality to the production, which, while at times seems contrived, works in the main. The conversations between Russell and Lee are of paramount importance, and the more natural they sound, the more rooted in reality is the project. There are, needless to say, some genuine laughs, such as finding out the law in the city of Kingston that said you can be naked on stage, but you can’t move, which affected a production of Hair.

Unsafe may have a “let’s put on a show in the barn” aspect to its unpolished veneer, but Lee was surrounded by some of the finest production designers in town. Christine Urquhart (sets), Steve Lucas (lights), Ming Wong (costumes), Ali Berkok (sound), Roxanne Luchak (video). This show just didn’t grow like Topsy. There’s also the work of dramaturg Birgit Schreyer Duarte who penned a long note in the program about the process of the show’s creation. And don’t forget master director Stanley. Sometimes the creation of something seemingly simple takes a lot of work.

The title Unsafe is clever. An artist is unsafe as soon as he/she begins a new work. It is unknown territory. The body politic feels unsafe when threatened by some artistic choices. The word unsafe can then be transmigrated to embrace a huge array of ideas related to censorship and art, and to her credit, Lee does cover a good chunk of the waterfront. Unsafe, despite its flaws, is still a stimulating conversation.

The short town hall that follows gives audience members a chance to express their views or ask questions. On the night I attended the performance, Unsafe had clearly engaged the crowd.

Photo by Yuula Benivolski

Canadian Stage, Unsafe, written and created by Sook-Yin Lee, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Berkeley Street Theatre, Mar. 12 to 31, 2019.

Theatre Review: Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back co-created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Nov. 14 to Nov. 25. Tickets available at 416.504.9971 or factorytheatre.ca.

 We Keep Coming Back is a chaotic production that is also absolutely compelling. As proof of the interest that the play generates, after every performance there is a discussion with the cast, and the night I attended, every member of the audience stayed for the talk.

The play is essentially a docudrama that is (mostly) true – their brackets, not mine. Co-creators Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley are drawn to the stories of real people as raw material for theatre, and these real people usually end up in the performance, even though they have no stage experience. Such is the case of We Keep Coming Back.

 As a point of background, Rubenfeld and his mother, Mary Berchard, have a difficult relationship. Berchard is the child of Holocaust survivors. Rubenfeld had the idea that if the two of them went to Poland and visited the birthplaces of her parents, this trip into family history might help bring mother and son closer together. They found Katka Reszke, their translator and guide for the trip, through a Google search, and we see her job interview via Skype. Thus the cast of We Keep Coming Back includes Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke, with mother and son tied together by a rope. Director Stanley does not appear in the play, but went along on the trip as cameraperson, archivist, and buffer between mother and son.

The performance itself is a mad scramble propelled by Rubenfeld’s frenetic energy. The other two are far more low key. Apparently there is no written script, the structure being a series of scenes that they perform together. Designer Trevor Schwellnus has created a bombardment of projections that include maps, diagrams, photographs, movies and drawings, many of which the cast write upon for further explanation. Several times Rubenfeld runs to fetch a ladder so he can reach the high places of the projections. A bed detaches to create two seats so it can become a car or a living area. The performance always seems to be in motion.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The plot, such as it is, goes off on many tangents, because, I surmise, there was so much the co-creators wanted to say. We of course get details of the actual trip to the two ancestral villages, as well as the harrowing pilgrimage to Auschwitz, which Berchard’s mother survived. Her father had managed to jump off one of the death trains and was found by the partisans.

An important subplot is about “generation unexpected” – present day Jews living in Poland. In many cases, such as Reszke’s family, their Jewishness was deliberately concealed and children were raised as Catholics, only to have the truth revealed in deathbed confessions. To Rubenfeld, “generation unexpected” is a revelation, including meeting the fetching Magda Koralewska from Poland at a Jewish conference in Montreal. His long-distance romance with Magda is a distraction from his commitments to his mother.

The dynamics between the three on-stage personalities is endlessly fascinating, as are their family histories. We also get philosophical discourse along the way, as well as culture clashes and stories of lives lived. Poland itself is given a kinder mantle, and we are told, for example, that there are more Poles honoured in Yad Vashem, Isreal’s Holocaust Museum, for saving Jews, than any other nation.

Rubenfeld comes across as a total jerk who is so self-absorbed in his own interpretation of events that he continually misses the bigger picture. During the post-performance discussion, he did explain that he and Stanley thought it was important to include his closed mind and constricted world view in the play. Berchard is sarcastic and funny, and castigates her son when she has to. She’s a charmer. Reszke functions as the conscience of the play, attempting to shake Rubenfeld out of his narrow vision. For a non-actor, she seems quite comfortable on the stage, as does Berchard.

Nonetheless, it is the tension and clash of ideas between Rubenfeld and the other two that provides the most food for thought. For example, in the forest near his grandmother’s village, there is large concrete slab that sits over a mass grave of 800 murdered Jews. A large tree has managed to grow through the concrete. For Rubenfeld, the dead Jews are fertilizer for the tree. The other two, and I’m sure the bulk of the audience, including myself, see that tree as something beautiful, as the triumph of life over death.

We Keep Coming Back is not a new play. It has been touring Canada and Poland for three years. Yet there are two sections that should be excised from the play forthwith, and it’s surprising that they are still there. At two points, the house lights come up and Rubenfeld asks the audience a specific question. The moments are awkward and embarrassing and add nothing to the performance. In fact, judging from some of the answers, audience members were irritated.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The first question is, should Rubenfeld use the trip to visit Magda, or should he remain committed to the promise he made to his mother that they would see Poland together. The second question is in questionable taste. Rubenfeld is arguing with Reszke about whose “Jewish” experience is more traumatic – Rubenfeld as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, or Reszke’s accidental discovery of her “fake Catholicism” and real Jewish identity? As one audience member sharply pointed out – “Should this be a win or lose situation?”

We Keep Coming Back raises significant questions about the past, present and future of Judaism and Poland, which makes the play a worthy theatrical experience. My companion and I certainly talked about the performance all the way home.