Written by debbie tucker green, directed by Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad. Until February 25 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Obsidiantheatre.com and 416-368-3110.
Does heinous crime justify violent retribution on the perpetrator? The question could not be more topical, following Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s controversial statement, while sentencing serial sexual assailant Dr. Larry Nassar, that she might allow others to sexually assault him, were cruel and unusual punishment not forbidden by the U.S. Constitution.
British playwright debbie tucker green’s 2015 play is set in a dystopian near-future in which victims possess even more extreme rights of retaliation. Typically, her way into this subject matter is spare and oblique, the point not made directly in the text itself but in the nature and terms of the situation, of which the audience slowly become aware.
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Obsidian Theatre Company’s Canadian-premiere production, co-directed by Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad, embraces the subtlety of green’s approach to such an extent that the energy of the staging stays on a similar level throughout its 70-minute running time. Sarah Afful gives a powerful performance of just-about-contained pain and fury as the central character, but the ironies of the situation as manifest in her relationship to the other two characters — representative of an impersonal institutional bureaucracy — do not fully come through.
Steve Lucas’s impressive concrete-block set turns the challenging proportions of the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre — it’s a space that’s awkwardly wide — to an advantage. The meeting room where Characters 1 (Zoé Doyle) and 2 (Vladimir Alexis) bring 3 (Afful) is excessively large and empty, adding to the dehumanizing feel of their encounter (the effectively stark lighting is also by Lucas).
It takes a long time for green to set up what’s happening: there is a lot of business about cups of tea and glasses of water and awkward chit-chat. It’s established that 3 has known these handlers for a few years, and that it’s surprising that she has come unaccompanied.
A gulf emerges between the audience’s mounting awareness that something really grave is about to go down, and the banality of the words and activities, and this contributes to green’s point. So does 3’s questioning of 1 about her personal life — green is poking at the incapacity of systems created to deal with crime and punishment (and the people who have to administer them) to take account of the human cost of violence.
There is the potential here for moments of comic bumbling and for the suggestion of complex power relations between 1 and 2, and between 3 and each of them. Akin and Rampersad have Doyle and Alexis play it all with tense restraint and seriousness, with only a flinch here or there to register how this is affecting the characters.
This limits the audience’s capacity to engage for a least half the play, and further weighs down the already-loaded second half, in which, through poetically sparse shards of monologue delivered with regal force and clarity by Afful, 3 reveals that a horrific (though never specified) crime has destroyed her and her young family.
It’s stipulated in the script that 3 is Black and implied that her assailant was white; this extends green’s ongoing focus in her plays on the experiences of Black people living within white-dominant systems (in Britain as in Canada, racialized citizens are more frequently victims of crime than white ones).
But, and this is where the twist comes, 3 is herself implicated in the systemic perpetration of violence. She chooses from a menu of punishments to be visited on the perpetrator (this is where the title comes into focus). She — for whom the situation has been inviting us to have sympathy — is participating with apparent satisfaction in a system which takes an eye for an eye to the next level (as are 1 and 2, here also played by non-white performers). And then there’s another twist, having to do with the potential humanization of the person whose fate is now in 3’s hands.
Akin and Rampersad end the production with 1 and 2 spotlighted individually, outside the meeting room, finally registering the emotion of what’s just happened — a welcome but belated moment of individuality. We’re left not knowing what happens next for any of these characters, but quite certain about what’s next for the perp. It’s a grim journey to an even grimmer outcome — but one that comes across today more than ever as a necessary cautionary tale.
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