By Olivier Kemeid
Directed by Keira Loughran
At the Studio Theatre. August 19-September 25, 2016
There is a civil war raging in an unnamed city where people are absorbed in disco dancing rather than paying any attention to any warnings or portents such as news of a column of black smoke building up into the sky or of a whole city on fire. A street preacher (an oracular Mike Nadajewski) warns that anyone who wants to live must leave. The revelry continues until hell opens and swallows most of the citizens. This is when the hero Aeneas (a stalwart Gareth Potter) learns to carry his father Anchises (Michael Spencer-Davis) on his back, and an infant son in his arms. His is a double burden because it must acknowledge the weight of the past on his back as well as a threat to the future that lies nestled in his arms. In the play, as in the Virgilian source, the hero wanders for years, survives one travail after another, before reaching safe shores where he will find his new home but not necessarily peace and contentment.
One of the striking and most effective aspects of Keira Loughran’s production is its deployment of expressionistic mime and movement to convey the symbolism as the tale moves from the world to the underworld and back again, under the signs of fire, water, earth, and blood. In one scene, dry roots pulled from the earth spill out black blood. In another, a storm at sea is evoked by a wildly fluttering stretch of blue fabric held by actors. In another, ladders evoke the scaling of mighty walls in battle. Chants, choreographed groups, a semi-abstract set design by Joanna Yu (a heavily draped mass of boxes, shields, and stones that can change shape from scene to scene) accompanied by colour coded costumes, and striking lighting by Itai Erdal all conspire to convey moods of panic, cruel indifference, and doom.
The production’s strong physicality expands its tale of people in extreme pain after they have been uprooted from their homes and normal lives. The play universalizes Virgil’s epic poem, becoming a riff on themes of exile, wandering, suffering, and survival. There is a moment of excruciating pathos generated from the context of a grieving mother clinging desperately to Aeneas’s child, while her husband (Rodrigo Beilfuss) pleads with Aeneas to allow her just an extra moment to pretend that the child is her own. There is another moment of a completely different mood when a couple (Mike Nadajewski and Lanise Antoine Shelley) sunbathing on the beach of an all-inclusive resort suddenly find themselves face-to-face with a tattered, hungry refugee who has apparently been washed up on the shore. And there is a scene where a frostily smug immigration officer (Karen Robinson in one of her three brilliant roles) confronts a desperate asylum-seeker (a wrenching Lanise Antoine Shelley). Or the conscience-shaking moment when Spencer-Davis’s Anchises names global refugee crises like a long litany before appealing to us to recognize that we have the power to found nations or destroy them.
The problem with this moment is not its intent but its audience. Anchises should be addressing xenophobes and racists who would never allow themselves to be in any theatre that would expose their sins. But isn’t this really the fallacy of all liberal art? It presumes that its message is reaching its target audience, when it is merely preaching to the converted.
However, all power to Kiera Loughran and her impressive ensemble. There isn’t a single performance that is weak, and there are several that show a versatility appropriate to the shape-changing tale. The most extraordinary characterizations are by Karen Robinson, who is outstanding as the bureaucratic Immigration Officer, the Underworld Sibyl (with a notable Southern accent), and finally as a bitterly violent refugee camp-dweller. All power, too, to Olivier Kemeid and his English translator Maureen Labonte. Kemeid’s modern riff on Virgil’s epic establishes him as a major Canadian playwright, possibly in the same rank as Wajdi Mouawad whose Scorched was one of the most riveting, disturbing, and significant dramas ever created in this country. Like Mouawad, Kemeid does not shrink from focussing on the contemporary world and in a manner that eschews aesthetic tidiness in favour of emotional impact. This is not to suggest that there is no deliberate dramatic structure or no disciplined mind at work; it is simply to underline a force that is frequently absent from English Canadian plays that seem content with far smaller subjects, far safer plots. The Aeneid does not speak only to Canada; it speaks to the modern world—the world of Donald Trump, which is to say the rancid world of hysterical ultra-Republican paranoia and demagoguery, as well as to the world of religious and political terrorists anywhere in our globe.