Dissidents is an unsettling but often confusing look at psychological torture

DISSIDENTS by Philippe Ducros (ARC). At 1251 Bloor Street West. Runs to May 20. Pwyc $9-$44. arcstage.com. See listing. Rating:.

DISSIDENTS by Philippe Ducros (ARC). At 1251 Bloor Street West. Runs to May 20. Pwyc $9-$44. arcstage.com. See listing. Rating: NNN

A man in a free-standing cell in a dark room has kept silent for a month despite daily interrogations about his reasons for committing an unnamed act of domestic terrorism. In his 2012 play Dissidents, receiving its English-language premiere by ARC, Quebecois playwright Philippe Ducros wants us to consider both why the prisoner committed his crime and whether the interrogators methods are ethical. Unfortunately, the action, which begins with so much promise, becomes hopelessly confused halfway through.

Early on, the prisoner (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) admits that he acted to do something to shake people out of their complacency. He feels that we in the wealthy world spend our lives distracting ourselves from all the human exploitation and misery in the rest of the world. We worry about our diets while others starve.

The female interrogator (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), whom the prisoner likes, is willing to speak to him with some hint of compassion. Alternating with her is the male interrogator (Christopher Stanton), who admits he has a mental condition causing a deficit of emotion. He mostly lectures the prisoner about the methods of psychological torture they are using.

These methods, we learn, were formulated by Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University who from 1957-64 experimented on patients (without their consent) to test his theories of how to completely destroy a subjects personality and ability to rebel.

Such material could be the stuff of exciting drama, but Ducros chooses to focus on the game-playing between the interrogators and the prisoner to the point where we cant tell when they are or arent lying to each other. When we give up trying to figure it out, our interest in the show evaporates.

As the prisoner, Gonzalez-Vio gives one of his most intense performances ever. Armour-Ostroffs interrogator shows some humanity beneath her official facade, whereas Stantons is completely egocentric. The productions venue design by Nick Blais in the basement of an abandoned furniture store is effectively eerie and unsettling. So is the decision by directors Stanton and Tamara Vukovic to have us listen to the dialogue over headphones as we watch.

As with physical torture we wonder: if psychological torture can force a prisoner to agree to anything, how can the information gained possibly be useful? And, in this case, we ask in vain why the torture persists so long after the prisoner has told his interrogators the reasons for his actions.

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