Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Oroonoko

The Prism of Brutal History
Does presenting the unimaginable remind, trivialize or flatten?
by Caitlin Murphy

Boasting live music, choreographed dance, fight sequences, period costumes, and 13 performers, Oroonoko, written and directed by Paul Van Dyck, and presented by Persephone Productions, is an ambitious piece of theatre that is both well-made and well-played. 

Based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel of the same title, Oroonoko recounts the story of a young African prince, captured under false pretences and taken as a slave to an English colony in the West Indies.  Through some first person narration in the novel, Behn – one of the first professional female writers – positions herself as actual witness to the events she describes (though the truth or extent of her personal involvement is unverifiable).  In the play, to mirror this narration, a dramatic framing device is used, in which Behn (Rebecca Croll) recounts the prince’s story to Clarice (Shannon Hamilton), an eager, new devotee.  The action of the play moves between Oronooko’s life and Behn’s narration of it.

The ‘event’ here is slavery, of course, but I’m not sure it risks being trivialized so much as flattened.

The several required settings for the piece – tents, ships, labyrinths, plantations – were all brilliantly conveyed with only a large, white sheet, a few poles and a pulley-system manipulated by the performers.  The clever simplicity of the design was supremely efficient and elegant, allowing numerous opportunities for dynamic staging and set changes.

Jaa Smith-Johnson, as Oroonoko is a committed and compelling performer; he’s got an intensity of presence that grabs you.  Rebecca Croll delivers a majestic Aphra Behn full of wit and command, though she tends to get a bit stuck there.  Indeed, performances were strong across the board, but everyone risked at times becoming a bit one-note, falling into comfortable cadences.  Accents were handled quite admirably.

For being based on such a short novel, the play is quite long.  Some scenes felt a bit overwritten and could have accomplished the same goals with trimming.  At some points, exchanges between characters fell into a lulling evenness of tone, or else the blocking got a bit staid – greater modulation in places and a tighter pace would keep things more vibrant and moving along a bit more.

In his program notes, Van Dyck contends that “By telling one story in the context of a greater historical event, the risk of trivializing the event is ever present.”  The ‘event’ here is slavery, of course, but I’m not sure it risks being trivialized so much as flattened. 

The images of slavery have been so repeated as to become iconic.  We are dangerously accustomed to them.  I’m not sure that seeing again a half-naked black man, being bound and beaten can offer anything new, which is not the same thing as saying that we don’t need reminding of the evils of oppression.  We absolutely do.  But the repetition of such imagery becomes quickly fraught, for me, and borderline fetishistic.  I don’t think we know how to actually see it anymore.  Documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who made the film Shoah, thought that portraying the Holocaust through piles of shoes or bodies, for instance, was obscene.  There’s just something about reducing unimagineable horrors to physical facts or familiar images that quickly becomes problematic, despite all of our intentions otherwise.  I’m not sure how we avoid this; but I think the process of de-familiarizing people might be central.

As a seemingly rather straight adaptation of Behn’s novel, Oroonoko is really quite a stellar piece of theatre.  The set, the staging, the performances, the costumes – all aspects were accomplished and impressive.  Something about the production just didn’t feel vital to me though.  Why this particular slave narrative?  Why re-told now?  Something felt a bit too tidy and resolved about it all, like an easy re-iteration of the obvious truth that slavery was despicable.  Though Behn feels guilty that she never helped Oroonoko, her connection to his story feels weak and primarily exploitative, (something the play’s final line confirms) a hard truth that’s left unexamined.  And I wondered if our connection to him doesn’t unintentionally wind up feeling a bit the same. 

I’m off to see another piece about slavery tomorrow night:  Django Unchained.  I’m not sure I’ll like it.  I get the feeling it will shake me up though.

Oroonoko is at MAI to February 17
Read the Paul Van Dyck's first-person piece about the creation of the work
Read Joel Fishbane's profile of Paul Van Dyck

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