Review of Carly Wijs Play at CAA Theatre
Us/Them is an incredible play that goes beyond the usual limitation of theatre and leaves one astounded by its accomplishment. And, as they say, it is a must-see.
It is a two-hander and the characters are referred to as a Girl and a Boy. They are hostages in a school together with some 1200 people in total, 777 of whom are children. The terrorists were Chechens who took over a school in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004, the first day of classes.
Belgium playwright Carly Wijs is taking a look at the three-day siege through the eyes of two youngsters and it is nothing like one would expect. The play contains many facts (and some fictions) about the city of Beslan and the view of Chechnya that the Russian pupils have been taught. The Boy and the Girl tell us that the children of Chechnya go to school until they are eight and then they work in brothels for pedophiles. The fathers are drug addicts and the mothers have moustaches.
It is the first day of school and the pupils are singing as thirty-five fully armed terrorists take over the school. The Boy and the Girl describe the take-over and attempts at escape but the key depiction is of what happens when people are seriously dehydrated. They go from headaches to nausea, to blue nails, decreased consciousness and finally hallucination.
The two children continue telling their story but we never know if they are hallucinating or describing actual events. All are forced to raise their hands up in the air and stay that way. They are not allowed to use the toilet so bodily functions are done where they are. All the descriptions of the siege are told in a matter of fact way through the eyes of the two youngsters without any attempt at dramatic effect. This is not a story on CNN. The opaqueness, the unvarnished description becomes all the more terrifying as we absorb what in fact is happening. It is beyond description.
Strings are drawn across the stage resembling a spiders web and the Boy and the Girl navigate through them. They see or imagine the gym where they are all imprisoned blowing up or the terrorists leaving or something happening. Some of it clearly did not happen, many things did. Again, this an intentionally opaque view of the tragedy and by no means an attempt at docudrama.
The two actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roma van Houtven, are superb. They are Belgians and speak slightly accented English but they are wonderful. They faint, they compete for who will say what, they are playful, they dance, all through an event that is beyond horror which results in the deaths of hundreds of people.
The back of the stage is used to draw diagrams of the school and there is a diagram on the floor as well which I could not see. Designer Stef Stessel makes the set with its strings and drawings look like a simple school project. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Wijs directs this intricate and highly original work that she wrote for BRONKS, a childrens theatre company and it premiered in Dutch in Brussels in 2014. It was subsequently produced in English at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This is theatre at its most intriguing, original and fascinating
__________________Us/Them by Carly Wijs in a production by BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions continues until March 15, 2020 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.