RETURN (THE SARAJEVO PROJECT) by Sue Balint and the ensemble, directed by Daryl Cloran, with Alena Dzebo, Holly Lewis, Christopher Morris, Tanja Smoje and Dylan Trowbridge. Presented by Theatrefront at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 12) and runs to January 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$30, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Theatrefront is one of those rare established companies in Toronto that doesn't want its own building.
"Instead, our long-term goals," recalls director Daryl Cloran, "included making work to take around the world, work that we'd create with artists from other countries.
"We started drawing up a list of countries whose theatre excited us because it had a relevant political or social voice or a completely different style of presentation."
The "us" Cloran refers to, many of whom are friends, included Holly Lewis, Christopher Morris, Patricia Fagan, Damien Atkins, Shane Carty, Dylan Trowbridge and writer Sue Balint.
While Theatrefront's already produced several local shows (Swimming In The Shallows, Our Country's Good and Mojo), behind the scenes it has also been developing international collaborations.
There have been initial first steps working with South African, Icelandic and Inuit groups. But the first finished co-creation, Return (The Saravejo Project), premieres tonight at the Tarragon Extra Space.
Directed by Cloran, the show features two Bosnian actors working with Theatrefront ensemble members.
Bosnia was high on the list of countries whose theatre excited the company. Morris offered to travel to Sarajevo and make links with theatre companies there.
"In typical Christopher fashion," smiles Cloran, "he strapped on his backpack, which I'd filled with information about Theatrefront. It was in the bar of Sarajevo's Academy of Performing Arts that he met director Faruk Loncarevic, who expressed interest in a collaboration."
That was in 2002, and the next year a group of Canadians went over to create a script with several Bosnian artists. The result had a single showing at the Sarajevo International Winter Festival and four workshop performances at the Tarragon's Workspace series in 2004.
The piece tells the story of Tarik, a Bosnian man who in 1993 fled his homeland's war; he returns in 1998 with his Canadian bride, Sarah. Tarik's family's welcome isn't as warm as his naive wife expects, even though he's come to bring his siblings back to Canada.
"It was fascinating to create with theatre people who work differently from us," says Alena Dzebo, a Bosnian actor who's been with the show since its inception.
"We started by exploring common themes, what would connect young Bosnians and young Canadians. I remember that the creative freedom we had resulted in scenes of great imagination, even if we didn't keep them all."
Nothing demonstrated the differences between the two cultures better than a pair of improvs depicting a couple's breakup.
"The Canadian version was subtle and quiet, with a great deal of talk; they touched only once," says Cloran. "The Bosnian scene was choreographed and physical, with the same words turning the scene violent.
"But I like that about Canadian theatre," interjects Dzebo, who plays Tarik's former girlfriend, now involved with his brother. "Maybe we're more physical, overtly emotional, but the Canadian version showed how the actors think about things and organize them from a rational perspective, not just perform from the gut.
"You'll see both artistic points of view in the show."
Over time, the relationships in the play have become more complex. The 2004 Toronto workshop offered some revelations about the impulse behind Tarik's emigration (he's kept secrets from both his family and Sarah) and its repercussions.
"But the basic story, in which a family in crisis becomes a microcosm for discussion of political ideas, war and national identity, has survived," offers Dzebo, "and proves its power. We're sure it will resonate for any audience, regardless of the language they speak.
The show is performed in English and Bosnian. Will those who speak only one of the two languages have problems?
"No, I don't think so," replies Cloran. "Since we never wanted to use subtitles, we had to find a way to make the whole play clear to everyone. Several of the bilingual characters translate part of the text. But I think the company can express physically and emotionally the points where details aren't aurally understood.
"We expect everyone to have a similar theatrical experience."