Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Two Rooms / II

Elkahna Talbi and Jean Marc Dalpé (photo credit: Mathieu Girard)
No Room for Compromise
To love or loathe those “swinging Tunisian hips”
by Gregory Bunker

Théâtre Français’s Two Rooms elaborates on the racist overtones created by the “war on terror”. It uses an older, white, “old school” Canadian policeman and a young, intelligent, beautiful, Muslim immigrant to tell its story. Originally written in English by Mansel Robinson, Two Rooms has been tweaked and translated for a French audience, shifting the immigrant’s identity as an Uyghur Muslim to a North African Muslim, for example. Jean Marc Dalpé, the male lead, translated the play to reflect a more natural French rhythm. But anglophones need not fear: surtitles are provided, which were effectively used by this humble reviewer even if their near proximity made it a bit difficult to flit between the acting and the dialogue.

In its fear of “the Other”, Two Rooms illustrates how the “war on terror” taps into racist narratives and heightens racial tensions.

The play is set in a sparse, cagey interrogation room (Norman Thériault) containing two chairs and the estranged couple, though only one of them is actually being interrogated. Mercier (Jean Marc Dalpé) is the good-cop-gone-bad-cop husband being held for questioning over the death of his wife, Maha (Elkahna Talbi). Maha is in the cell as well; speaking from the grave; confessing details unknown to Mercier about her life. Both Mercier and Maha hide nothing. Their explanations are convincing and emotional, but suffer from the passiveness of the circumstances: they are giving a performance—a recital of deeds already done—to the audience.

Technically proficient in every way, Two Rooms presents a valuable message, but sacrifices some real opportunities for theatre while doing so. There is something unsatisfying about not dramatizing the death of a person in a two-person play dealing with love and betrayal. It would’ve been absolutely horrific and powerful to have somehow witnessed the many facets of betrayal closing in on this one scary moment of unbridled racism, paranoia, and murder. Also, the ending was an opportunity to make this play more intimate—to see Mercier fall apart once he realized the truth—but instead we are left saddened by his persistent denial of Maha’s true character without ever getting to see him recognize that he only need fear his own prejudice. 

In its fear of “the Other”, Two Rooms illustrates how the “war on terror” taps into racist narratives and heightens racial tensions. While this message tends to subsume the drama, it succeeds as a distinctly Canadian commentary on the complexity of vigilance against “terror” in our multi-cultural society.

II/Two Rooms runs to February 3 at Berkeley Street Theatre
80 minutes without intermission.
Read also a first-person piece by playwright Mansel Robinson.

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