Stage Door Review 2024

3 Fingers back

Friday, March 8, 2024


by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, directed by Cole Alvis & Yvette Nolan

Tarragon Theatre & lemonTree creations, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto

March 6-24, 2024

Saad: “The waste is incalculable”

Anyone who saw the play, The First Stone by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, in 2022 is bound to be disappointed with her new offering 3 Fingers Back, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. 3 Fingers Back  has none of the force or urgency of The First Stone. Given that both plays on what is called a double-bill are marred by needless repetition, the story St. Bernard has to tell could be told in two hours, rather than the evening’s currently enervating three hours.

3 Fingers Back is the overall name for a bill of two one-act plays, Give It Up and The Smell of Horses. Though St. Bernard calls the two plays a “double-bill”, they are really two acts of a single play. The first part focusses on two women who have been captured and put in prison. The second focusses on their male captors. Yet, the facility where all the characters are in is the same, the plays share some of the same characters and the two plays have exactly the same ending. St. Bernard is merely portraying the same action from two points of view. On stage the most obvious use of this technique is Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off (1982), where we see the action in a stage play from the audience’s point of view in Act 1 and then in Act 2 from the point of view of those backstage. St. Bernard’s play is no farce, but the intent of the second part of the “double-bill” is to show us in what was going on behind the scenes in the first part.

The first play, Give It Up, focusses on a single jail cell in an outpost far from the fighting in a civil war. One woman, Yol, is already in prison and has already experienced torture. A second younger woman, Ada, is placed in the same cell as Yol. At first the two are suspicious of each other, neither knowing whether the other has been sent to wrest information from her. Eventually, they both realize they are “Sarahs”, women who fight and gather intelligence on behalf of their leader known only as Sarah.

The action proceeds through a series of repetitions. The women argue, Yol is taken out to be tortured, Ada fears for herself, Yol is returned, the women reconcile and Ada learns more about their situation. As drama this method of dealing out information is tedious since so little changes between torture sessions and so little information is passed on to Ada, let alone to us the audience. We wonder how Ada can be so self-absorbed that Yol must be returned almost dead from torture before Ada begins to understand anything.

In the second play, The Smell of Horses, the focus shifts to the main office of the outpost-cum-detention centre. Here we see the introduction of Saad to Beech, the acting head of the centre. In Give It Up, Saad was the man in charge of the women, said little and merely brought the women food or carried Yol away and brought her back. While the outpost’s commander is away, Beech verbally and physically abuses the seemingly naïve and idealistic Saad and assigns him the worst tasks in the camp. This is Beech’s way reinforcing a hierarchy where he has been placed above Saad. When the commander Adam returns, he treats Beech the same way Beech had treated Saad. It is hard not to see that St. Bernard is showing how men in the military take out their own frustrations at being maltreated on the prisoners they interrogate. Again, repetition marks the action, first with Beech abusing Saad, then with Adam abusing Beech, until the repetitions end, artificially, with a surprise revelation.

Sadly, it is very difficult to become involved in the action of either play. 3 Fingers Back is part of St. Bernard’s ambitious “54ology” for which St. Bernard plans to write a play for each of the countries in Africa. The country of The First Stone was Uganda. According to the Directors’ Note the countries of 3 Fingers Back are Angola and Guinea-Conakry. From Angolan history St. Bernard takes the idea of women involved in fighting in Angola’s lengthy civil war (1975-2002). From the history of Guinea-Conakry, she takes the idea of a country wracked by military coups that routinely tortured its civilians in military camps. For this last she could have chosen any number of countries in Africa (or elsewhere), since neither coups nor torture are specific to that one country. For female fighters, St. Bernard could have chosen the women of Côte d-Ivoire who in 1949 marched on the prison in Grand-Bassam to demand the release of the men held there without trial by colonial authorities.

The result in choosing two sources for 3 Fingers Back is that the play(s) lose all specificity. The country where the action takes place is not named nor its capital. The playwright has so generalized everything that the play(s) become really a demonstration of the bravery of women and the cowardice of men in general, in no significant way specific to Africa. Without the Directors’ Note to tell us we would have no idea where the action was occurring.

The structure the playwright has chosen does not help convey St. Bernard’s message. The playwright’s characterization of the men as dangerous buffoons in the second play pushes the suffering of the women so vividly depicted in the first play into the background. Also, we have heard from Yol so much about how the men behave, that actually to see them in the second play is unnecessary. It seems that the second play exists entirely to help explain the sudden ending of the first play. All the rest of the second play appears to be merely variations on the theme of men as brutal, misogynist idiots who are interested only in rank and power, though they only use power to oppress.

The evening is illuminated by two superb performances – one in each half of the play. In Give It Up, Uche Ama gives a deeply-felt performance as Yol, the first woman we see in the prison cell. Though the writing is tedious, Ama makes Yol’s repeated bouts of torture dramatic by showing through change of voice and posture how each bout causes her increasing pain. Ama is excellent in displaying several concurrent emotions, most often Yol’s suffering, Yol’s will to suppress suffering, Yol’s fight to endure and, most effectively, Yol’s silent review of her life and its purpose. Ama is a great actor whose work I hope to see again.

St. Bernard’s script contrasts Yol’s profound understanding with the superficiality of Ada. Ada involves Yol in all sorts of petty arguments, such as which one of them is closer to their leader Sarah. St. Bernard has Ada argue with Yol even when Yol is returned after torture. It is very hard to believe that a young woman, no matter how inexperienced, should not feel sympathy for a person fighting for the same cause who is forced to undergo frequent torture. Megan Legesse does what she can, but she never is able to make Ada’s callousness toward Yol convincing. Also, unlike Ama, Legesse seems able to express emotions only sequentially rather than simultaneously, even though Ada realistically should be filled with a roiling mixture of emotions.

In The Smell of Horses, it is Tsholo Khalema who shines. Khalema turns Saad into a detailed comic study of a naïve young man who knows about how the military behaves from the rule book he carries with him. Khalema makes Saad’s every awkwardness of speech and movement both amusing and touching. He shows Saad as an uncorrupted idealist whom we do not want to see corrupted. It is thus quite disappointing when we realize that this sympathetic persona is one that Saad has adopted. I won’t go into detail about St. Bernard’s plot twist, but it’s effect is to undermine the authenticity of the lovely character that Khalema has built up so carefully.

In contrast, St. Bernard has written the other two male figure as one-note characters. Indrit Kasapi plays Beech as a bigoted brute who is continually angry that he has been posted so far away from the fighting. Christopher Bautista plays also plays Adam as a bigoted brute, but St. Bernard at least gives Adam a sense of irony in coping with his situation. This Adam is just like Kasapi’s Beech only more ferocious, more mercurial and more dangerous. What St. Bernard denies both of these male characters is depth.

A major hindrance to the effectiveness of 3 Fingers Back is the bizarre set of César El Hayeck. Give It Up is set almost entirely in the cell occupied by Yol and Ada. El Hayeck has placed this cell on floor level on extreme stage left. Those sitting in seats on the house right side of the Tarragon Extraspace will have an ideal view. Those, however, seated on the house left side will have to turn their necks 30º-45º to the right in order to see the cell. Even then they may not see the two women inside.

The action of The Smell of Horses takes place on a large, raised space occupying about half of stage right. This represents the office of the commander and is dominated by a large evidence board of the kind seen in detective fiction, with newspaper cut-outs and threads connecting photos. Adam uses it to discuss troop movements for which it is clearly not intended. Occupying this office are two long rectangular boxes, the top short than the bottom, that are fixed to the stage in through their centre so they can rotate. In Give It Up the men watching the women will periodically go to the office, rotate the boxes a bit and sometimes pound on them. What this means is a mystery. In The Smell of Horses The three men will sometimes move the boxes about as if they are rearranging the furniture. The structure still looks clumsy and abstract.

Audiences of 3 Fingers Back will learn nothing about Angola, Guinea-Conakry or Africa, even if the supposed double-bill is part of St. Bernard’s “54ology”. If St. Bernard doesn’t want to undermine belief in her knowledge of Africa, she should avoid possible confusion in naming its fauna. She has Yol tell Ada a folktale from Yol’s village about the tiger and the birds. All she need do is replace “tiger” with “leopard” to eliminate confusion, but clearly no one on the creative team noticed the flaw. But then, no one seems to have noticed the flaws in the structure of the set or of the plays themselves. St. Bernard has written excellent plays before. Let’s hope she does so again.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Uche Ama as Yol; Megan Legesse as Ada and Uche Ama as Yol; Indrit Kasapi as Beech, Christopher Bautista as Adam and Tsholo Khalema as Saad; Megan Legesse as Ada and Uche Ama as Yol. © 2024 Jae Yang.

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