THE MONUMENT by Colleen Wagner, directed by Jennifer H. Capraru (Isôko Theatre/World Stage). At Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay West). To Sunday (May 2), Friday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $15-$45. 416-973-4000. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Over the years, Toronto audiences have seen two productions of Canadian playwright Colleen Wagner's award-winning The Monument, set in a country that has undergone a genocide.
But the current version, the final offering of this season's World Stage at Harbourfront Centre, has a personal resonance for the producing company. Because of events in 1994, Rwandan troupe Isôko Theatre understands only too well the horrors of genocide, and the power of their version of The Monument is fully felt by the show's end.
That power takes a while to be felt, though, for a number of reasons. Translated from English to Kinyarwanda and performed with surtitles, the production expands on Wagner's original two-hander, in which a soldier convicted of rape and murder is turned over to a mysterious woman who offers him his life if he performs everything she says.
Director Jennifer H. Capraru adds two other female figures - I won't give any spoilers here - as well as song, dance and drumming to enrich the story and its telling.
Young soldier Stetko (Jean Paul Uwazeyuk) proudly admits his rapes and murders, 23 in all, taking pleasure in the virgins but sadly admitting that he's never had the chance to make love to his girlfriend. He had no choice but to do what he did, he explains, in a country where a man had to enlist or be seen as an enemy sympathizer; later, his going against military orders would have meant his death. He begins to have different thoughts when he's put in the hands of Mejra (Jaqueline Umubyeyi), who has her own hidden agenda in questioning Stetko and searching his past actions. Calling herself Stetko's executioner as well as his saviour, Mejra seeks the truth for herself and for her prisoner.
Alternating some stomach-turning disclosures, stylized violence and moments of tenderness, Capraru takes these two characters on an open-ended journey that might lead to some kind of forgiveness on both sides.
If it's hard to get into the emotions of the piece, put some of the blame on the surtitles, which are often so dense that we end up scanning the screen for 30 seconds and not watching what's happening onstage; occasionally, the surtitles flash on and off so quickly we can't get all the words. The result, at times, is reading an argument and not feeling it.
We're also initially kept at a distance by Stetko's bravado speeches, even if there's a hint that his conscience needles him. Uwayezuk's performance is more impressive when he starts working with Umubyeyi, the most powerful actor onstage.
In fact, the performance becomes gripping about halfway in, when the other two figures (Solange Liza Umuhire and Ruth Nirere) become more defined. You're sure to be riveted by the last half hour of the performance and be as affected as the performers clearly are.
And speaking of the actors, be sure to hang around for the post-show talk; there's as much heart in the discussion as in the show, with these artists offering their own take on the material.