Absurdism and Social Justice in Death of an Anarchist

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oliver dennis, daniel williston, ins choi, kawa ada, raquel duffy & rick roberts

photo by cylla von tiedemann

Sitting in a darkened theatre can be a somber place. It is an increasingly rare experience that brings a community of strangers together to sit and experience the same event, without pauses to check our phones or to give in to other daily distractions. In this way, often the theatre becomes the place where we gather to cathartically cry about cancer, or to explore issues pertinent to our society, like the question of legalizing euthanasia, or our roles in the conflicts in the Middle East. In Ravi Jain’s production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which played until February 21st, 2015 at Soulpepper Theatre, the question arises whether it is possible for an audience to laugh and be entertained, while also engaging in critical discourse and social action at the same time. In short, must a play be either light, fun and entertaining, or deep, intellectual and “important,” or can it it be both?

Accidental Death of an Anarchist was written in 1970 and its spark of inspiration was pulled directly from the Italian headlines. On December 12, 1969 a terrorist attack occurred and three bombs were detonated, two in Rome and one at the National Agrarian Bank in Milan. An anarchist railway worker named Giuseppe Pinelli was suspected, arrested and later died while in custody from a fall from a fourth floor window of the police station. There were significant discrepancies in the police account of his death, which initially maintained that Pinelli had committed suicide by leaping of his own volition out the window during a routine interrogation. His name has since been cleared in the case. In Fo’s imagined work we are introduced to a “Madman,” a genius of improvisation, deception and impersonation, who wreaks havoc on a police station by pretending to be a Superior Court Judge coming to investigate Pinelii’s suspicious death.

This play has become a classic and often revived work of the World Theatre, but it was not intended for this conventional concept of success. The work belongs to what Fo and his partner Franca Rame refer to as “Throw Away Theatre,” a work so topical that it spoke with immediacy to the concerns of its Working Class audience, was highly improvisational and was meant to be discarded the moment it became outdated. What is so telling, and depressing, about this play is that its themes of the corruption within the Law Enforcement and Justice systems and insistences of police brutality and bias, are just as relevant today, here in Canada and elsewhere in the World, as they were in Italy in 1970. In keeping with the spirit of Fo’s “Throw Away Theatre” Jain has staged an American translation of the play by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante and has changed all the play’s references to reflect 2015 in Toronto- grounding it, as Fo would want, immediately in the here and now.

Kawa Ada, as a the Madman, is a breathtaking tour de force, bursting with energy and words and playful shenanigans that cascade out of him with breakneck speed and formidable urgency. Both are traps that are meticulously set to unravel the lies of Inspector Pak (Ins Choi), two Constables (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Williston) and the Chief of Police (Rick Roberts) and to expose the inherent Absurdity in such corruption existing at a police station in the first place. Ada’s Madman has a triumphant self-congratulatory exuberance about him that is innocent, like Peter Pan’s crowing, and with the craftiness of Bugs Bunny and mischievous charm of Arlecchino, he endears himself to the audience in his crusade for the truth, even while infuriating the exasperated Inspector Bertozzo (Oliver Dennis), who keeps trying to arrest him on prior charges of fraud.

Rick Roberts’ Chief of Police is stiff, pompous and full of formality, but is willing to do anything the Madman’s Superior Court Judge suggests in attempt to cover up any wrongdoing by himself and his Inspectors and Constables, that may have led to the death of the anarchist. The interplay between the Madman’s fake Judge, who at one point appears wearing a peg leg, a fake hand and an eyepatch, like a dismembered pirate, and Robert’s Chief, who so earnestly proves that he is so desperate to save himself he will grab hold of ANY lifeline, regardless how ridiculous it is, is hilarious. Roberts is reminiscent of Toronto’s own Police Chief, Bill Blair, whose involvement in various scandals have kept his name in the news in recent years. The play also makes reference to the allegations of police brutality during the Toronto G20 summit, the cases of Sammy Tatim, who was shot dead on a streetcar by police and Edward Snowshoe, who committed suicide in federal prison after having being segregated for 162 consecutive days, and the Mayor Rob Ford crack video scandal. Ada’s Madman conjures up Billy Flynn’s philosophy of “Razzle Dazzle,” which culminates with the Madman convincing the Inspector, Constables and a very reluctant Chief of Police to join with the audience in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”

The farce is kicked up to Three Stooges caliber in the Second Act with the reemergence of Inspector Bertozzo threatening to blow the Madman’s cover, and the arrival of a journalist (Raquel Duffy) from a left-wing newspaper looking to expose the truth behind Pinelli’s death. Bertozzo’s desire for justice, to expose a man he knows to be a fraud, is suddenly at odds with the interests of Inspector Pak, the two Constables and the Police Chief, who need the Madman’s lies to help deceive the journalist. In this tug of war, Oliver Dennis’ Bertozzo becomes a literal punching bag, a beating down of the truth by the enforcers of the law. The journalist is easily swindled by the Madman’s eccentric stories and just as it seems as though all has been in jest- for the delight of tricks and slapstick- Kawa Ada jumps through the fourth wall and reminds us, the audience, that we are sitting and laughing at our own dismal state of affairs- that the corruption and scandal and injustice here in Toronto is real and serious. It is a jarring moment. Do we feel guilt for enjoying the last two hours of theatre? Do we wake up and engage with it in a different way? Or, do we examine how we have been using our laughter?

Dario Fo described the play as “grotesque farce about a tragic farce,” and indeed, that is exactly what Ravi Jain’s production at Soulpepper is. It is enjoyable for us to see those who are powerful in our society made to look ridiculous and for someone who is usually more vulnerable, a Madman, for example, to wield all the power. That power inversion is the very essence of satire and comedy. Yet, if we admit that the farce, although not quite so theatrical, is real, as we did when we finally voted Rob Ford out of the Mayor’s Office, we come closer to deciding that we are tired of allowing and accepting such absurdity and corruption. Then we get closer to doing something productive to change it. Laughter can be empowering and communal, and empowering the people is integral to social change. The fact that Accidental Death of an Anarchist hasn’t been able to be thrown away yet because it still resonates so strongly with the people proves that we’re still in need of a little madness to shake up our scandal-laden status quo.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Soulpepper Theatre is closed. 

Kim’s Convenience Exceeds the Hype

Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience

paul sun-hyung lee as appa photo by cylla von tiedemann

On May 25th, 2013 I had a powerfully emotional experience in the audience at the Opening of Ins Choi’s beautiful play Kim’s Convenience at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Written by Choi, a Soulpepper Academy graduate, this play premiered as a hit of the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival and went on to open Soulpepper’s 15th Season in January 2012. The remount runs at Soulpepper until June 19th, 2013. This play reminded me, at a time when I so urgently needed it, exactly what it is that I fell in love with in the Canadian Theatre and how exceptionally glorious and invigorating the experience of attending the theatre can be for the audience.

There isn’t anything newfangled or revolutionary about the construction of Choi’s play. It takes place in a convenience store owned by Korean immigrants in Regent Park and at once tells the story of one family’s struggle to connect with one another and the city around them in contemporary Toronto, while also shining the light on an experience that is so much a fabric of our city and of our country, as we seek to maneuver around our place in a not-quite-ideal Canadian cultural mosaic. Directors Weyni Mengesha (Original Production) and Albert Schultz (Remount) root Kim’s Convenience in intense Realism, which makes the audience feel as though they were watching the unfolding drama through the store’s security camera. At a time when the theatre is consistently looking to become more Post Post-Modern, Three Dimensional and Audio/Visual it is exciting to see how breathtaking stark, unabashed Realism still is when in the hands of beautifully deft actors wielding the words of a skilled playwright.

Kim’s Convenience Store is in a neighborhood that is being gentrified, and as condos are going up, Mr. Kim’s store is being threatened by Walmart moving in and stealing his business. Ready to retire, Kim is even more exasperated when his daughter, Janet, shows no interest in wanting to take over the store to ensure that his legacy in the neighborhood continues. Mr. Kim and Janet keep colliding with one another explosively as it becomes clear that his values, perspectives and experiences as a Korean immigrant to Toronto are radically different than hers as a first generation Canadian. Kim’s estranged son, Jung, who still meets his mother at Church, is conflicted about his own place in society. He has a tarnished past, a dead-end job and a new baby, all of which are persuading him to revaluate a relationship with his father.

Choi balances perfectly poignancy, humour and intensity in his rapid-fire dialogue. The play is filled with delightful absurdities (such as how to tell which mixture of race, gender and sexual orientation will ALWAYS shoplift) and great physical comedy, as well as truly moving moments of honest, sincere emotion. The result is a piece that continually has its audience laughing throughout, but leaves many in tears at the end.

Much of the success of the play is due to its formidable cast. Andre Sills plays a myriad of different customers to the store, but shines with so much charisma as Alex, the cop, who has his eye on Janet. Feisty photographer, Janet, is played by Grace Lynn Kung, who captures so beautifully the complex love of a child, who is no longer a child, still living at home, trying to make a life for herself by optimistically following her dreams. She has a very subtle sense of entitlement mostly shrouded by her captivating zest for life and irresistible hope for the future. Kung makes you love and root for Janet, despite her flaws. She is countered by her mother, Umma, played gorgeously by Jean Yoon, a devoutly religious woman who appears meek and sorrowful in her resignation for what has become of her life, yet with a distinctive formidable quality just beneath the surface. Ins Choi plays Jung, sheepish, haggard and a little lost. Both his and Yoon’s subtle, understated performances compliment beautifully the more volatile personalities of Janet and Mr. Kim.

Kim’s Convenience is certainly a star vehicle for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who gives a mesmerizing performance as Mr. Kim, affectionately known as Appa. Lee manages to infuse all Appa’s rage, his paranoia and his gruff, tough love, with hefty doses of humour and a clear sense of his unwavering care for his family, his community and his heritage. He and Kung’s Janet have one especially harrowing fight about the price tag of Parenthood that rocks the audience to its core in its raw and painful intensity.

I love seeing a story like this about Korean Canadians onstage, especially at a theatre like Soulpepper, for whom original Canadian plays are something new to be celebrated. I also like that this play speaks not only so specifically about one distinct experience of living in Toronto, but that it also speaks more broadly about the human condition. I saw so much of my story in Janet, while still relating to Appa’s need to hold on to his own piece of the story and to remain connected to his homeland. I marvelled over Ken MacKenzie’s stunningly detailed Naturalistic set design. I relished in an experience that was so immersive I forgot that I was seeing a play I was so lost in the magical world of pretend.

Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my heart, for peppering my soul.  

Kim’s Convenience plays through June 19th at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Soulpepper Theatre Company is located at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto, ON. Tickets range from $22 -$68 (plus service charge) and are available by calling the Young Centre box office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca. $22 tickets are available for 21-30 year-olds at stageplay.ca. StagePlay is sponsored by TD Bank Group.

The cast and crew of Kim’s Convenience are hitting the road and embarking on a “National Tour” to the following venues in the upcoming months:

July 11 – 28,
2013
Port Hope Festival Theatre
Port Hope, ON
Sep 3 – 29,
2013
Theatre Calgary
Calgary, AB
Nov 6 – 23,
2013
Theatre Aquarius
Hamilton, ON
Jan 22 – Feb 8,
2014
National Arts Centre English Theatre
Ottawa, ON
Mar 13 – Apr 5,
2014
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Winnipeg, MB
Apr 24 – May 24, 2014 Arts Club Theatre
Vancouver, BC

I sincerely hope this beautiful play finds its way to Halifax some time soon. It would certainly be a treat for audiences there to see!!