Psychological thriller looks at prisoners of conscience

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Published: April 30, 2015 10:23 PM


Three Romanians, united by religious beliefs, are separated in different isolation cells in Andrew Kooman’s new play, We Are the Body.

Three Romanians, united by religious beliefs, are separated in different isolation cells in Andrew Kooman’s new play, We Are the Body.

The year is 1955 and the Soviet Union has drawn an Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe. Formerly Christian countries, such as Romania, are being forced to embrace a state-imposed atheism.

As a playwright and a Christian, Kooman was intrigued by this historic time and place — and by the question of which ideas are people willing to suffer or even die for?

“To me (the play) is a psychological thriller … it asks the question: what beliefs do we hold on to so strongly we won’t let go of them?” the Red Deer resident added.

Although three Christians are central characters in his new play — which runs from May 5 to 9 at the Scott Block in Red Deer, he believes the themes explored in We Are the Body are universally relatable, since many people are continuing to suffer for their beliefs around the world.

Christians were recently murdered by Islamist extremists in Ethiopia. Falun Gong members are imprisoned and reportedly tortured and killed in China. Human rights advocates decry that Muslim prisoners are detained for years without trial in the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison.

Political prisoners of all stripes languish in global jails. Even the Canadian government has been accused of seeming to condone the torture of citizens such as Maher Arar by other countries.

As an Amnesty International member, Stephen Waldschmidt of Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre is aware of these various faces of persecution — which is one of the reasons he decided to direct We Are the Body. He was hooked on the story since first reading an early draft of the script while directing Kooman’s play She Has a Name, about sex trafficking, in 2012.

While both dramas revolve around human rights abuses and allow audience members to get inside a situation that’s happening to somebody else, Waldschmidt believes the similarities end there.

“This is a different play than She Has a Name,” said the director, who feels the previous play was a “call to action” to motivate the public to help try to stop sex trafficking, while We Are the Body is more of a slice of life. “It shows what it’s like to be a prisoner of conscience in a repressive regime.”

While the story of Kooman’s female sex slave character in She Has a Name was largely filtered through Jason, a Western man who tries to help her, nothing stands between viewers and the three prisoners in Kooman’s new play. “They talk right to the audience, saying, ‘Do you hear my voice?’ and ‘Would you listen to me for the next hour and a half?’ ” said Waldschmidt.

Elsie is a woman in her late 20s who lost a fiancé in the war and turned to religion to help her deal with her loss. Richard (based on real-life Richard Wurmbrand, a middle-aged Jewish Christian convert), is imprisoned for his beliefs — as is Micah, who belongs to an underground church.

The young man spends much of the play wondering whether his communist brother turned him in, said Waldschmidt. “Micah’s journey is, in some ways, the most complex. He’s losing his faith in the reality of a just God whereas Richard is trying to keep his faith.”

The play tells of the daily beatings and tortures inflicted on these prisoners. But Waldschmidt said the violence will be mostly implied instead of shown on stage since “we want people to engage in the story rather than look away.”

He believes We Are the Body actually has more light-hearted and comic moments than She Has a Name because the characters — Elsie in particular — look back at better times to help them deal with their oppressive reality.

The pre-war story of Elsie and her fiancé, Ionel, is “a beautiful romance” that stands in stark contrast to her later imprisonment, said Waldschmidt.

One of the most challenging aspects of directing this script was figuring out how to present the Morse Code tapping on water pipes and walls the prisoners use to communicate with each other. “It starts very slow at the beginning and then goes faster,” as the users become more adept at tapping the code.

It connects them and becomes a lifeline, “a way for them to hold onto their sanity,” said Waldschmidt, who hopes audience members will leave the play more open minded about differences in culture or beliefs. “I hope there will be more of a willingness to listen to people who are different, who hold different points of view.”

Kooman, who penned We Are the Body through the now-defunct Scripts at Work program that offered up-and-coming playwrights professional mentorship, hopes the experience of seeing it will lead to post-play discussion. “I hope it opens a door for people to enter a conversation,” which is what he believes good theatre should do.

“It’s a great reason to come together and explore something together.”

Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. shows (2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, May 9,) are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. Available from burntthicket.com.

The play also runs in Calgary from May 13 to 23 at the Pumphouse Theatre, and in Saskatoon from May 26 to 31 at Studio 914 Theatre.

lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

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