When a brilliant writer and a brilliant director work together the results can be nothing short of amazing. Patti Flather’s is the writer of the second play I ever watched, and still one of the best, The Soul Menders. Majdi Bou-Matar is the brilliant director of last year’s Body 13. The two have brought about one of the best plays of the year, and one that captures many issues that are important both in the world at large and Whitehorse in general Paradise.
The play is an ensemble piece that follows four characters. Rachel a young woman who after spending some time in Central America is brutally sexually assaulted. Upon coming home she finds that everything in her life is changing in all sorts of ways she did not expect and she begins taking drugs as an escape. Her father George is an eccentric doctor who is struggling with his upcoming divorce. His patient Wally is a former lumberjack who after an injury has become increasingly desperate to prove that he has a problem in his ear canal, and has been becoming increasingly unstable as time goes by. Khalil is a young man of Middle Eastern descent who is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Each of these characters seeks to find some kind of humanity in the worlds various systems and find themselves stifled by them.
All of the issues of the play are very important but that would mean very little if the play was not well written. Fortunately it is. Patti Flather has always had a very deft touch for character and this play is no exception. Each of the characters feels very real, and are very sympathetic. Despite the fact that many of characters fail to understand each other in various ways and find themselves at odds none of the characters feels at all unsympathetic. You understand why the characters act in the way they do and this makes there problems seem all the more tragic.
Another really interesting element of the writing is the way that the scenes are juxtaposed with each other. In some cases when characters are going through something similar the scenes of what are happening to them occur simultaneously. At others the scenes will shift very suddenly sometimes with one of the characters from the previous scenes quickly playing a different role in another scene. A common change is for different characters to play Wally’s dog. The way that this occurs creates a unique experience.
The direction is also very well done. Majdi Bou-Matar is a very unique director with a very recognizable style. This play actually differs from many of his others in that it has a script at all. The majority of his plays are done almost entirely by improv. The freedom he gives his actors has always worked very well. there is an inherent physicality to the way the characters move. It is physical poetry.
The set design done by David Skelton is very interesting. There are bars everywhere giving the set a very oppressive atmosphere. It relates directly to how Khalil is imprisoned, but also by how all of the other characters feel imprisoned.
The actors in this play are all amazingly talented people. Pam Patel shines in the role of Rachel. There is a very powerful energy to her performance, the character is very emotional and very emotionally expressive and she does a great job at capturing that. When her character is truly happy it is impossible not to feel that happiness, by the same token it is impossible not to feel her pain at what happened to her or to feel the desperation she feels later in the play. Michael Peng does a great job as George. He really captures the characters eccentricity and hidden issues. His performance is on one hand very funny, but at the same time there is a tragedy to his character which Peng captures perfectly. Patel and Peng also have very good chemistry. The two of them feel like a real father and daughter. This can especially be seen in a scene were the two of them are looking at a bird that has flown into the birdhouse. Nicholas Cumming Is great in the role of Wally. We see his softer side in his interactions with his dog. He does a great job showing his characters frustration with the way he is treated while at the same time being very intimidating in his growing anger. Aldrin Bundoc is great in the role of Khalil he is especially impressive since his storyline is the most separated from the other characters. He has to not only show his own character arc, but also create this arc on his own through both the letters he narrates and his interactions with the guards who are not actually on stage. His performance on its own is just as impressive as the other actors. He does a superb job of capturing his characters enthusiasm and youth while also capturing the characters decent into fear anger and hopelessness.
Paradise is a powerful play that talks about some important issues while giving no easy answers. It is also a very effective and powerful character study. It deals with the issues involved in a way that pulls no punches so if you are sensitive to any of the issues you may want to give the play a pass. Otherwise this could very well be the best play of the year. It will be playing one more time tomorrow at the Yukon Arts Centre, at 8PM and then one more time at the ST. Elias Convention Centre at 7PM in Haines Junction. If you only see one play this year let it be this one.