Calgary Fringe – She Has a Name – Review

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Photo Credit: Kelsey Krogman

She Has a Name

August 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11

Lantern Church Sanctuary

http://see.calgaryfringe.ca/events/374-she-has-a-name

I missed the world premiere of She Has a Name when it played in Calgary last year, but I certainly heard good things about the show from many sources. So I was quite pleased to get a second chance at seeing what all the fuss was about at the year’s Fringe Festival where She Has a Name was playing as part of a cross Canada tour. And while a play about human trafficking told via a narrative concerning an abducted young woman who is forced into the sex trade in Bangkokisn’t exactly the light Fringe fare most people are used to, I for one was excited to have something substantive to chew on this festival.

That is until I saw the play. Let me be clear for anyone that is unsure, there is a great distinction between an important and powerful emotional play and an important and emotionally powerful issue. In tackling the selling of minors into sex slavery and shipping them like cattle across borders, She Has a Name certainly deals with vital and gut wrenching subject matter. But the way in which the play deals with the subject, from playwright Andrew Kooman’s forced and stilted dialogue, to the painfully melodramatic staging to the pulpy acting by much of the cast, results in an overwrought piece of theatre that neither does justice to the subject at hand nor the art of storytelling in general.

The plot showed promise – Jason, a Canadian, visits a brothel in Bangkok and pays to be with #18, a very young girl with no name but the number she is has been given by her pimp. Unbeknownst however  to the boss of the whorehouse, John just wants to talk to her and take pictures. Turns out Jason is an undercover agent working for a non-profit organization looking into human trafficking for the purpose of sex slavery. He is hoping that #18 knows something about a horrific smuggling incident across the Malaysian border and he works to gain her trust so he can convince her to testify.

Much of the play concerns Jason talking with the outwardly sexual but obviously traumatized 15-year-old girl in her brothel room as he attempts to get her to open up to him. When not with #18, Jason either Skypes with his wife back home who is trying to not let the stress of their separation put a strain on their marriage or he meets with the head of the nameless organization he works for.

Pretty much as you’d expect, Jason gains #18’s trust, he plans to both rescue her and shut down her captors and of course, nothing goes as planned. Or in this case because the plot does nothing to divert from the obvious story arc , everything goes as expected. Frankly I’d be ok with the formulaic model if the acting and dialogue kept things interesting. But this is where She Has a Name inexcusably falls apart for me.

The entire cast felt as if they were delivering lines they had yet to internalize and at worst the actors were so stiff and unnatural that the dialogue felt like a first reading of the play. Perhaps the biggest offender was Sienna Howell-Holden as the mamma-San of the brothel. With her sometimes on, sometimes off Thai accent and a delivery so stilted and laboured it was painful to watch, she set the bar very low for dramatic presence.

Glenda Warkentin as Marta, the head of the non-profit organization, didn’t fare much better. With a clipped and clichéd performance that would have sounded right at home in a 70’s TV cop show ( It’s all gone to hell, Jason! You can’t afford to be a hero on this one),  her overly serious but emotionally bereft acting left me cold, with no desire or ability to engage with the character.

Now, in all fairness, the cast of She Has a Name wasn’t given much to work with in the dialogue department. Kooman’s lines strain and push so hard for effect that it’s a wonder someone doesn’t put their back out. In an exchange between Marta and John, Marta describes how she can be so unemotional in her work. “I have a river of tears damned up…. and someday the floodgates will burst open and then I don’t know what will happen” . It was all I could do to stifle a groan as I squirmed under the weight of the hackneyed dialogue standing in for real drama.

And then there were those ghost-angels. Clad in white hooded capes, three figures swooped and danced and moved about the stage at various times throughout the play delivering rhyming or inner voice commentary for the various characters in order to let us know how they were feeling. Rather than adding a deeply personal dimension to the characters, I found the device to be a clumsy and lazy way of getting around deficits in the script. Had the writing been more comprehensive and the dialogue more complex and interesting, there would have been no need for these apparitions. Instead they were needed to fill in the holes and bring some uniqueness to the play, but ultimately I feel they just took away from what should have been the real drama of the story, namely the forefront acting on stage.

I had to think hard to find anything good to say about this play. There were a few nicely staged moments between Jason (Clark Kennedy) and his wife Ali (Alysa Van Haastert) and occasionally Evelyn Chew as #18 managed to pull off some emotional depth,  but the good moments were fleeting and like that ”river of tears” Marta talks about, so damned up that they weren’t even worth looking for.

RATING

For the guys and the girls – Yes the subject matter is important for both men and women to consider, but the play’s emotionally manipulative tact combined with its heavy-handed treatment and poor performances greatly underservice the issue it wishes to highlight. SKIP IT

For the occasional theatre goer – It’s tough subject matter dealt with honestly. The disturbing nature of the play will most likely crowd out its many other shortcomings and you can just get lost in the issue. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie –   A review that uses the terms melodramatic and overwrought should be clue enough. SKIP IT

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