Body 13 is the Canoe Festival offering from the company MT Space (Multicultural Theatre Space), of Kitchener, Ontario. It was created by the ensemble and director Majdi Bou-Matar, and they started working on it about four years ago.
It’s an intriguing piece that kept shaking up my expectations, about what kind of story it was going to be, how the story was going to be told, and who the characters were. The seven characters all spend time on a Canadian beach over the course of a cool-weather day, arriving as strangers but gradually interacting and making various connections. The impression of shared public space is created early on, first in one vignette where all the performers are representing funeral attendees and then in a set of glimpses where the beach seems crowded with different odd solitary people each doing his or her own thing. Later, the narrative focuses more on one or two people at a time, while one or two others might be still on another part of the stage. And “doing her own thing” reminds me that one of my favourite characters in the story was Iman, played by Nada Humsi, a middle-aged woman refugee claimant from Syria. Those phrases might evoke a picture for you, as they did for me, but I was delighted to have my assumptions shattered, as this character took off not only her headscarf (a kerchief like my mother used to wear on windy days) but her red lace brassiere, told funny stories, made fun of Canadian custom (“So we’ll talk of nothing. Like Canadians”), and was outspoken and determined. I was delighted by Humsi’s way of acting out her cat.
Jessalyn Broadfoot was Rae, Iman’s immigration officer, caught between her affection for Iman and her professional duty not to get involved. Her expressions and body language showed a careful self-contained woman uncomfortable with personal disruptions on the quiet day off she’d been anticipating, and the occasional awkward moments of of a self-conscious white person dealing with neighbours of different cultures were endearing, such as her clumsy Namaste gesture at the Gujarati funeral.
While the narrative pacing of the play was fairly linear, it was often interrupted by movement and music. Rae did a wonderful dance of helpless rage, accompanied by the composers and musicians (Nick Storring, Colin Fisher, Germaine Liu) as she thrashed her blue beach throw in defiance. Tristan, a young man from Newfoundland, (Trevor Copp) confided that he had been subject to anxiety attacks since he was a boy at hockey camp, and this launched the two most powerful movement portions of the performance, the first an expression of Tristan’s response to a homophobic epithet on the beach, turning into his sense that he is surrounded by people picking at him, prodding him, and pointing at him while he cowers trying to get the lid off his medication. Lighting changes and music add to the tension and anguish, and on my second viewing I found myself wincing in anticipation. In a later part of the performance, Tristan’s anxious response first manifests in all the performers playing hockey, and a gradual shift into a set of physically intimate and blatantly-sexual encounters between and among various characters.
Assaf from Lebanon (Badih Abou Chakra), Rita from India (Pam Patel), Thomas a white Canadian (John Havens), and Ato from Ghana (Tawiah Ben M’Carthy) turn out to be similarly intriguing characters, and not everyone turns out to be likeable. Quirks of movement and expression – Assaf’s laugh and his wiping-a-tear gesture, Thomas’s slicking his hair back, Rita’s bearing of the chest containing her father’s ashes, Ato’s stylised jogging – helped to distinguish the individuals quickly. The one who came to annoy me through the course of the story ended up alone, while the rest of them all found some resolution, as predicted by Ato’s early comment to Thomas trying to find a cufflink on the beach “You will find something, but you will not find what you look for.” And then the rest of them all shed their clothes, ran behind a screen, and were seen and heard giggling and shrieking the way you do when you’re wading into cold water in the dark with your friends.
The musicians played a variety of instruments, also behind the screen, and I could not identify all of them. Some of the lighting revealed that all the costuming was in hues of solid clear colours, each distinct. Also, as an easily-distracted mechanical engineer, I was fascinated to observe the pattern formed when the chest of ashes (visually fine sand) was poured slowly onto a smooth surface. In water that pattern is called “hydraulic jump“, and you can recreate it easily in a flat-bottomed sink like a stainless steel kitchen sink. I don’t think the sand formation has the same explanation, but I don’t yet know what the explanation is.
Joel Crichton tweeted a challenge to count biblical references in the performance, and I actually didn’t notice any. So I guess I lose the challenge, but as the character predicted, I found other things in the performance which I didn’t expect and which pleased me a lot.
Body 13 has one more performance at Canoe Festival, 1:30 Sunday at C103. Tickets are available through Workshop West and at the door.