Stage Door Review 2024


Saturday, January 20, 2024


by Matei Vișniec, translated by Nick Awde, directed by Siavash Shabanpour

Two Thousand Feet Up Theatre Company, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto

January 17-28, 2024

Balkan Man: “We need more doors”

The Two Thousand Feet Up Theatre Company is currently presenting the Toronto premiere of Migraaaants [sic] by Matei Vișniec, a Romanian playwright now resident in France. The four A’s of the title suggest a call – either a rallying cry to all migrants or else a warning cry that migrants are coming. Vișniec’s play looks at both sides of the serious question of illegal immigration to Europe by people from North Africa and the Middle East fleeing war or discrimination or those simply seeking a better life. Since it takes on such an important topic, it is a pity then that the play itself, as well as the production and acting, are so uneven.

In calling Migraaaants a “dark comedy” TTFUTC seriously misrepresents the effect of the play which is almost entirely grim. The 80-minute play consists of a collection of short, intermingled scenes which fall into six general categories. The principal group the begins the play concerns the efforts of a people smuggler to get his boatload of clients from Tripoli, Libya, to the island of Lampedusa, part of Italy and at 296 km the closest part of Europe to central North Africa.

Director Siavash Shabanpour has a man known only as “Boss” address the audience as if we were the migrants seeking passage to Europe. As Boss, Ahmad Meree harangues and threatens us into doing what we need to do to stay alive during the crossing and what we need to do when we encounter immigration officials on Lampedusa. Boss will not be with us at that point because he will have dropped us offshore and turned back in order not to be discovered.

Meree’s role consists of a lot of shouting since Boss is trying to communicate with a large group who may not even understand what he is saying. The situation is uncomfortable and so it is meant to be. Despite his uniformly stentorian tone, Meree does manage to communicate the professional attitude Boss has toward his job. He wants everything to go smoothly, not so much for our sake but for his, so that there will be no further crime beside illegal transportation that he can be charged with should he be caught.

Vișniec has Boss and his human cargo encounter and increasingly worsening series of setbacks. The first is already announced in the full title of the play, Migraaaants: On est trop nombreux sur ce putain de bateau (Migraaaants: There’s Too Many People on This Damn Boat). With too many there won’t be enough fuel and the boat will be too heavy. We are rudely made aware that there is no humane way to solve this problem. If Boss’s anger at the setbacks to the migrants’ transit are meant to be comic, it in no way comes across.

The second strand of scenes concerns the boy Elihu and his relationship with an unseen human trafficker. The trafficker asks Elihu if he would like a better life and shows him pictures a large British city. He tells Elihu he is a rich boy because God has given him two of everything – eyes, arms, legs and kidneys. Beginning with kidneys, the trafficker says that Elihu doesn’t need both, the implication being that Elihu’s kidney will help pay for his travel to England.

This strand is the best written in the play since the horrors that the trafficker suggests are never stated outright, only implied. Our unease is increased by our grave doubts whether the young Elihu fully understands what precisely the trafficker is talking him into. Parastoo Amanzadeh gives an absolutely heartbreaking performance as Elihu. Although Elihu’s responses consist almost entirely of “Yes”, “No” and “I don’t know”, Amanzadeh lends them multiple layers of meaning that reveal the combination of hope, fear and confusion with a vague perception that the trafficker despite his good humour may be evil incarnate. Amanzadeh’s beautifully expressive face and carefully controlled tone of voice show us in each subsequent scene how Elihu feels increasingly powerless.

The fact that Vișniec turns the story of Elihu into a sort of ad nihilum deductus parable of the exploited migrant does not soften its horror. In fact, making the story into a parable has the negative effect of turning the character into a type rather than an individual.

The third strand of three scenes is rather obscure. It concerns a Balkan Man and his wife, known as Balkan Woman. In the first scene the Wife asks her husband whether he has ever seen any Black people. Neither has. In the second a stranger visits. The Wife is very apprehensive but all the stranger wants to do is recharge her phone. I the third scene, the Balkan couple’s house has seemingly become a haven for young migrants.

Vișniec gives us virtually no information about the couple. The Man comes home after work to have dinner but is irritable and agitated. We don’t know what he does or what it is that makes him so uneasy. As the Man, Andrew Chown, despite the few words he has, radiates the requisite sense of doom that, for unknown reasons, the Man is feeling. Mahsa Ershadifar as the Balkan Woman is unfortunately very difficult to understand and we generally know what she says only because Chown repeats it. Nevertheless, without more background Vișniec’s use of this strand of storytelling, meant to show Europeans who are not afraid of migrants, is not as effective as it should be.

Vișniec’s attempts to lighten his disturbing subject matter with humour are misguided. In two scenes we have Presenters (the suitably smarmy Shannon Pitre and Keely Krall) who preside over what feel like commercial breaks in the programme. In the first of these they try to show the benefits of a heartbeat detector that can determine whether any migrants are in your vicinity. In the second they moderate a fashion show of barbed wire clothing meant to keep unwanted people, like migrants, at a distance. Vișniec’s satire is so broad it clashes clunkily with the detail and earnestness of the scenes featuring the Boss and his travellers or Elihu and the trafficker.

The same is true of the two would-be comic scenes involving a President and his Coach. First the President makes an outlandishly xenophobic speech, and then the Coach completely reworks it to be politically correct, assuring the President that this profession of political correctness will still allow him to do whatever he wants. As with the Presenters’ commercials, these scenes cartoonishly portray the anti-migrant stance that the newcomers will have to face. The President’s scenes are not helped by our difficulty in understanding what Garrett Mallory Scott says as President or what Henry Peirson, who does not project, says as the Coach.

Vișniec includes one scene that is not connected to the others except through theme of human trafficking. In this two Traffickers, Fehed and Ali (well played by Jamar Adams-Thompson and Daniel Motaharzadeh), backed by what looks like a travelling circus, try to convince children to come with them to a better life. The comedy is meant to derive from how inept the two Traffickers are, as opposed to the mysterious voice who speaks to Elihu. The trouble is that the subject matter is horrific. According to UNICEF, “between 2012 and 2014, more than 60,000 child trafficking cases were detected in more than 100 countries and regions; while the actual number of victims can be assumed to be significantly higher….. In many cases, desperate migrants pay their traffickers for safe passage, only to be taken advantage of, abused and forced into the sex trade or marriage”. Knowing this and having seen the Elihu scenes, the reality of what Vișniec’s two Traffickers is doing is so abhorrent that no matter how comic Vișniec tries to make them, he does not succeed.

Director Siavash Shabanpour manages his cast of 17 very well. Why Shabanpour uses such a large cast is a bit of a mystery since with doubling the play really requires perhaps only seven actors. Just as Vișniec’s text is wildly uneven in approach and tone, so the production as a whole has no unifying artistic concept. The gloom lighting designer Duncan Appleton lends the Boss’s and Elihu’s scenes works well, but the brightness he gives the Presenters’ commercials and the President’s scenes only seems to heighten their superficiality. Appleton creates a great effect in the first scene when through projected animation he shows the Boss blowing all the identity papers out of one of the migrants hands. Such animation is used only once again in a boring way to illustrate the heartbeat detector and never again. For the Traffickers’ circus, Appleton uses a live video feed of one the clowns of the circus, but again only once.

The main advantage of Migraaaants is that it brings to life the ordeals that would-be immigrants to Europe encounter and emphasizes how terribly vulnerable they are to abuse of all kinds. Vișniec really required only the Boss scenes and the Elihu scenes to make this point. All the other scenes feel weak or facile in comparison. In Canada we do need to see how people of other countries view questions of international concern. For that reason, I am glad that TTFUTC has staged Vișniec’s play. While Vișniec is currently the most-performed Romanian-born playwright, Migraaaants does not show him in the best light. Since it is unfair to judge a playwright on the basis of only one play, perhaps TTFUTC will oblige us with another. At least, I hope, the company continues to pursue further thought-provoking plays.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ahmad Meree as Boss and the ensemble; Jamar Adams-Thompson as Fehed, Ahmad Meree as Boss and Daniel Motaharzadeh as Ali. © 2024 Zahra Saleki.

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