Carly Wijs's acclaimed two-hander about young hostages in the three-day 2004 tragedy doesn't resonate
US/THEM by Carly Wijs (Mirvish/BRONKS/Richard Jordan Productions). At CAA Theatre (651 Yonge). Runs to March 15. $39-$99, stu $25. 416-872-1212, mirvish.com. Rating: NN
The running time for the Belgian two-hander Us/Them is only an hour, but you might find your mind wandering before the show’s over.
The play, which was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s National Theatre, tells the story of 2004’s Beslan school siege. Over three days, terrorists took more than 1,000 people (including 700 children) hostage in a Russian school. The event ended with more than 300 dead.
Gripping and disturbing subject matter, to be sure, especially since similarly violent acts happen frequently on this side of the Atlantic in the form of school shootings.
But the approach writer/director Carly Wijs takes, while initially intriguing, robs the show of much of its power.
Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven play two unnamed students who presumably were held hostage and are now, on a nearly empty stage, tasked with recreating the events for us. Jostling for position, they compete to deliver the most accurate information – about how big the school gymnasium was, for instance, or what buildings were in the surrounding area.
The two young actors have a believable rapport as they scramble around the stage, casually constructing a web-like effect with twine and using helium-filled black balloons to indicate the position of the terrorists’ bombs. The way they set this up is deceptively innocent – they jump around the twine like kids in a playground – but the audience understands the implicit danger in their situation.
Most intriguing is the fearful, bigoted language they use to talk about the Chechens outside their village – something they’ve obviously learned from their parents. That gives us a clue to the title’s meaning.
But for viewers not familiar with the Chechen-Russian conflict, or this particular event, there’s far too much telling involved. And after a while the detached, matter-of-fact information about the signs of dehydration, for instance, go nowhere. Even the “detonating” of those balloons – which should be shocking – fails to register fully.
The script’s abrupt ending – the opening night audience wasn’t sure whether to applaud or not – doesn’t help matters.
Then again, the Mirvish website lists a study guide for teachers and students to learn from the show. Perhaps adults aren’t the main demographic for this particular dramatic lesson.