Theatre Review – Human Cargo Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille – The Runner by Christopher Morris

Photo by Lyon Smith

Propelled by the magnificent performance of Gord Rand, the visionary direction of Daniel Brooks, and the profound script by Christopher Morris, The Runner is a spellbinding and disturbing theatre experience that is not to be missed.

Rand plays Jacob Cohen, a member of ZAKA, the Israeli organization that collects the body parts and blood of Jews who have been dismembered by bombings or mutilated in car accidents. These orthodox Jews believe that their co-religionists must be buried whole. ZAKA also gets calls from outside Israel, such as Jacob describing the excavation of a mass grave of Jews in the Ukraine. Apparently ZAKA subscribes to the Hippocratic Oath that a person must do no harm, which is what gets Jacob into trouble in the first place.

The crux of the play revolves around the fact that at an attack site, Jacob saved the life of an Arab girl believed to be the killer of an Israeli soldier. Jacob truly believes in the Hippocratic Oath that commands him to do good, but he is reviled for saving her – and so his troubles begin. Apparently Jacob’s mother and her two sons immigrated from England after the death of her husband. Jacob’s brother Ari, who lives in a settlement in the West Bank, believes that the softer, weaker Jacob should not even be living in Israel because he lacks the warrior spirit. It doesn’t help that Jacob has always been an outsider and a closet homosexual, which has always put him at odds with his community.

Rand’s powerful performance is extraordinary. First of all, he looks every inch the part, with his kipah on his head, tassels from his prayer shawl creeping out from under his yellow safety vest, and sporting the beard worn by most orthodox Jewish men. Every little detail enhances his characterization, particularly his expressive hand and arm gestures, whether always pushing his glasses up his nose, or his habit of putting both his hands on his head. His personality slides between anger and bewilderment, defiance and incredulity, but always with fervour and passion. Director Daniel Brooks also functioned as dramaturge and so he is intimately acquainted with Morris’ provocative script. Clearly every word Rand utters during the 80-minute show has been worked out in meticulous fashion with Brooks. Nothing in his delivery has been left to chance. Rand is simply mesmerizing, and it is hard to imagine any other actor playing the role.

I am presuming that Brooks came up with the idea for Gillian Gallow’s brilliant set. A motorized running track sits on a long, narrow platform that juts out into the audience, and Rand is always in motion. Only very occasionally does the track come to a stop. At Jacob’s most impassioned outbursts, the speed increases to a frightening degree. Sometimes the track runs backwards which carries Jacob into the shadows. So as well as saying his lines, Rand is always running which makes his tour-de-force performance even more harrowing. Bonnie Beecher’s atmospheric lighting and Alexander MacSween’s evocative score only gild the lily.

If one is an “Israel, right or wrong, but Israel” person, some aspects of Morris’ riveting script will cause offense. Nonetheless, the very question of loyalty to the state versus doing the right thing – the central theme that Morris is grappling with – must be addressed. I would venture to say that the nation of Israel struggles with this dilemma every day.

Human Cargo Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille, The Runner by Christopher Morris, directed by Daniel Brooks, Nov. 25 to Dec. 9, 2018. Tickets available at 416-504-7529 or www.passemuraille.ca/wp/tickets.

Photo by Lyon Smith

Theatre Review – Panamerican Routes/Rutas Panamericanas

What a splendid day I had catching the first three shows of this exciting new festival all in one go. The brainchild is Beatriz Pizano – writer, director, actor and artistic director of Aluna Theatre. Her mandate is the presentation of Latin American artists with an emphasis on human rights.

What follows is just a brief summary of the performances from the first week of the festival.

Loco7’s amazing Urban Odyssey is one of the greatest works of imagination I have ever seen. Colombian-born Federico Restrepo, and his co-creator Denise Greber, are the masterminds of this New York based company at the famed La Mama Theatre. He directs, choreographs and designs the fantastic puppets. She is the costume designer.

Urban Odyssey is a journey of an immigrant from a land of troubles to the uncertainty of a new land, all told through dance theatre and puppetry. But these just aren’t any puppets. The boat that carries the immigrant is so realistic it takes one’s breath away. Corporate giants (and I do mean giants) who ravage the earth are brilliant metaphors. The happy houses made up of doors, with a delightful melange of adorable puppet children, put a big smile on one’s face.

The message is a sad one – the corporate giants and their grasping underlings win – but Loco7’s theatre experience blows the mind.

Mexican-born, San Francisco-based Violeta Luna is a performance artist whose Parting Memories is a poignant experience. While a voice-over in Spanish (with English surtitles) relates the chronology of a woman and her family crossing the border illegally, Luna engages in simple tasks before a video screen that is filled with non-stop images related to her life. In fact, Mickey Tachiban’s video is brilliant in its mix of realism and fantasy. Kudos also to David Molina for a searing sound design, and director Roberto G. Varga who understands economy of movement.

As for Luna, her performance art is full of symbolism and metaphor. She starts off with a hopscotch grid, but each square contains an item, such as shoes that become relevant for her life. She encases the audience in a cage of string. She takes her passport, a family photograph and money out of a loaf of bread that she then offers to the audience to pass around. She sews these personal items onto her skirt. At another point, she looks like a Madonna, encased in white.

Nothing is hurried, Nothing jars. She works quietly through her tasks while the horrific story unfolds. Her stillness and silence speak of quiet strength and courage. She is the consummate icon of a Latin American woman who has lived through much sorrow. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Ixok’ is the name of a woman (and of the show), whose tragic life is portrayed through dance and text by Mexican-born, Toronto-based Mayahuel Tecozautla. The words are by Edgar Flores and Carmen Samayoa. Beatriz Pizano directed with choreographer Olga Barrios. On stage live is musician Brandon Valdivia with his formidable array of percussion instruments and recorders. Tecozautla speaks Spanish but there are English surtitles.

During the 1980s in Guatemala, the Mayan Genocide took the lives of over 250,000 victims. Ixox’ is an indigenous peasant who tries to find safety for herself and her child in the jungle. The painful story recounts her childhood, marriage, and her struggles during the civil war. Designers Andjelija Djuric and Trevor Schwellnus have created a gorgeous play of lights as well as indigenous costumes that eloquently capture time and place.Tecozautla is a charismatic performer. Her body is compact and tight, but she carries grace in her strength. The text is very moving.

While the other two shows were Mainstage Performances, Ixok’ is a Showcase, so presumably, a staging getting ready for a fuller performance later on. Nonetheless, it held up very well with the other two.

If this is the kind of quality Pizano is going to bring us in Panamercan Routes – that Latin American love of magic realism in all its many guises – than I wish her well. I want more. This festival was a perfectly satisfying theatrical experience on every level.

The second week of the Panamerican Routes features Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box, and a remount of Aluna Theatre’s ambitious  Nohayquiensepa (No One Knows). The showcase is a reading of Rosa Laborde’s new play Marine Life. The festival runs until this weekend. It’s a keeper.

Panamerican Routes/Rutas Panamericanas, Aluna Theatre in association with Theatre Passe Muraille, May 15 to 27, 2012