[L-R] Ali Momen, Alexa Devine, Clinton Carew. Photo Credit: Tim Nguyen/Citrus Photography
Everything is Terribly Nice Here
December 12 – 22, 2012
Joyce Doolittle Theatre
Listen to my review on CBC’s Eyeopener on Monday, December 17, 2012 at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/
Halfway through Ghost River Theatre’s production of Everything is Terribly Nice Here, Theo Van Gogh realizes that the fundamentalist manifesto stabbed into his chest is written on an old ArtNews critique of one of his films. He reads the unflattering review aloud which calls his art, “corny, lazy work”. I can’t imagine playwright David van Belle meant to make me laugh at this description, but I couldn’t help myself as those sentiments were exactly how I was feeling watching the preview performance of his play.
Unimaginatively directed by Eric Rose, Everything is Terribly Nice Here takes the 2004 murder of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and spins a surreal post-murder type of scenario out of the event. Van Gogh, for those that need reminding, was a filmmaker and a newspaper columnist who delighted in provocation. A fairly nasty and bombastically opinionated man, there were very few people and groups he didn’t offend at one point in time. In 2004 he collaborated with another outspoken figure, the Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to make a ten minute film titled, Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in Islam. Using shock as its selling point, the film showed female naked bodies with texts from the Qur’an written on them and women veiled with semi-transparent shrouds as they knelt in prayer. Needless to say, it was extremely offensive to many Muslims and resulted in a fatwa being called on both Van Gogh and Ali. Taking up the cause, on Nov 2, 2004 Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Moroccan Muslim waited for Van Gogh outside his office and shot him several times, killing him on the spot. Bouyeri then walked over to Van Gogh and stabbed a knife into his chest holding a five-page religious and political manifesto detailing Van Gogh’s supposed sins against Islam among other issues.
When the play opens we see Theo and a Mohammed-inspired character named Haitham in a room resembling a concrete cell with no doors or exits of any kind. Van Gogh wakes up to find the manifesto stabbed to his chest and Haitham on the other side of the room, praying. Looming over both men is a digital clock-like readout on the wall that seems to be counting up to 1,000. The play quickly becomes a what if scenario -– what if you took these two radical men with such extreme and opposing views and put them in a room together for 1,000 years. As overly precious as the construct is, I do applaud van Belle for creating a play that attempts to take us from the known (the murder) to the unknown (the 1,000 year conversation). It’s a thinky–talky kind of storytelling that has the potential for some deeply interesting insight and questioning of beliefs. But unfortunately we get none of this due to the incredibly shallow writing, pedantic staging, and poor performances.
To be fair, I can’t completely fault the actors for their part in the play’s failure. They weren’t given much to work with. Theo is inexplicably written as an unexamined, unintelligent, loud-mouthed buffoon and consequently Clinton Carew who portrays him, spends most of the play walking around slack-jawed and somewhat goofy in his pronouncements, that as a result have no conviction. This is certainly not a character that would be capable of writing a weekly newspaper column, let alone creating Arthouse films.
Ali Momen, who plays Haitham, does better predominantly because he’s given the more interesting dialogue, making him come across as the more reasonable and reasoned character. But it’s a character that is terribly one dimensional without anything compelling or thought provoking to say. It’s interesting to note that while van Belle put the real life character of Theo in the play, he turned the assassin Mohammed into a Muslim named Haitham because the real Mohammed was apparently quite ignorant and van Belle thought this would result in a character whose arguments were too easy to knock down. The result is the exact opposite in the narrative. Theo is the one that comes across as ignorant and ill-informed while Haitham is the more thoughtful and even perhaps morally superior character. Regardless of your politics or allegiances to any side of this issue, this wildly lopsided match-up made for a completely unsatisfying debate and robbed the narrative of any intellectual exercise or engagement.
Further hurting the script was the inclusion of occasional attempts at dark humour. When removing the knife from his chest, Van Gogh notes that’s it a Henkle brand knife. Haitham responds with, “The best you can get by quality and it never lets you down.” It’s perhaps mildly amusing but totally out of place with the rest of the dialogue which flails and lurches unsuccessfully in an attempt to give heady importance to questions of faith and morality.
As problematic was the staging. Dealing with a completely propless, bare set can lead to some really innovate and interesting direction. But not only was director Eric Rose’s staging not creative, it was downright boring with far too much pacing around and standing about and yelling at each other from opposite ends of the room with mounds of awkward body language. But the biggest offense centered around a third character – a ghost like shrouded female who is on stage the entire time but unseen by the men despite the occasional interaction with them. Every once in a while this “She” character would pipe up and deliver a non sequitur, muddy, metaphoric monologue to the audience, similarly pacing about the set with no real purpose. The only difference in her favour was the head scarf she wore which she could wind and unwind into different configurations. But really, when a scarf is your only interesting directorial point of interest, you’ve got a problem.
There has been much talk lately about the joys of writing (and reading) a skewering review – the idea that going off on a performance or restaurant or book in a cleverly negative fashion is some kind of ego trip for the author. While I’m sure this is the case for some critics, as someone who loves theatre and truly wants every performance to be a success, I take absolutely no pleasure in it. And even less so in this case due to the fact that I was really looking forward to this play. Not only was it a wholly original work (which we need more of in this city) but it was billed as a political, moral and religious debate that would leave me surprised and thinking and asking questions. But with no weight to the dialogue, no heft to the debate, nothing new offered or discussed and a climax and resolution that was as unbelievable as it was poorly conceived, the only question I asked was about 30 minutes in, when I checked my watch to see how much longer I would have to endure.
For the guys and the girls – Thin acting, weak dialogue and characters that are underdeveloped leaves nothing but a cool idea gone wrong to hold on to. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – I would rarely recommend a thinky–talky play to you. And this one for sure not. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – It has such potential. But not in its present form. I couldn’t even find a nugget that could be workshopped of fiddled with for the opening night to make this a more successful piece. SKIP IT
*Warning to viewers – this play contains some nudity and harsh language