We Are The Body- Burnt Thicket- Red Deer

burnt thicket

Written by Andrew Kooman

Directed by Stephen Waldschmidt

World Premier Tour

“Growing up in the relative freedom of western democracy”, begins director Stephen Waldschmidt, “How do I imagine the anguish forced on entire populations”? These are the thoughts the audience is encouraged to approach from the comfort of their seats before entering the harsh, freedom-less world of We Are The Body.

Red Deer native Andrew Kooman’s bravely written work delves into the lives of three individuals living behind the iron curtain in 1940’s Romania, all of whom are imprisoned in subterranean solitary confinement for their religious beliefs.

These characters are Christians who have been arrested on the allegations of holding forbidden meetings and smuggling illegal bibles into communist-controlled Romania. They endure stifling conditions and brutal atrocities- beatings, brain washing, rape, complete sensory deprivation and utter isolation- and at the mercy of humiliating guards in this desolate place, they cling to their beliefs and reach out to find solace in each other.

At first glance, one might say that We Are The Body selectively appeals to Christian values. Although this might be an advantage in a country where approximately 78% of the population count themselves as Christians (stats Canada census 2001), and can therefore instantly empathize with characters they can recognize and relate to, it also runs the risk of alienating those with non-christian backgrounds and beliefs, like myself.

However, non-Christian audiences would be cheating themselves by giving in to the defensive knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t want to sit through some religious propaganda”. If the religious subject matter bothers you, I urge you look past the secular speak and open up to the universal human truths so thoughtfully put before us.

Ultimately, this is a story of guiltless individuals suffering for their basic human rights, a cruel epidemic of intolerance that has reverberated through every country, race, and belief on the planet. The three individuals whose hardships we witness on stage could easily represent any color, race, religion, or gender. The point isn’t necessarily what they believe in or why, but that they do believe and continue to hold fast to those beliefs for which the are unjustly persecuted, that they are human, and that they go on a journey which leads them to ask the same questions we all harbour in our hearts.

From within their dense cell walls, here represented by claustrophobic circles of broken light cast onto the stage floor, three prisoners crave companionship and reach out to each other by tapping out covert conversations in Morse code. Throughout the play, these tappings softly transition into rain on window panes, knocks at the door, approaching footsteps, and the lit circles become porous as we step beyond their boundaries and into living rooms and bedrooms, memories true and imagined, meetings between the isolated individuals as if they were in a coffee shop discussing theology and their personal spiritual journeys.

This fluid, non-linear structure is perfectly paired with gracefully poetic, and at times stream-of-consciousness language, combining seamlessly to mimic how ones mind might jump from one thought to another, from one true memory to an imagined one, whilst struggling to grip onto sanity in unending darkness and the limitless mental boundaries of solitary confinement. Where time and self looses all relevance, something bigger must fill the void.

The character of Richard, a persistent sermon-izer played with humour and tenderness by Tim Bratton, is dedicated to the memory of real-life detainee Minister Richard Wurmbrand, who wrote about his experiences when imprisoned for his beliefs in communist Romania. He reveals that he had at one point considered becoming a hermit and spending his days in placid solitude and thought- now, in a cruel and ironic twist, he has exactly that. Through Richard, the father figure of the play, we witness the arduous ups and downs of a senior inmate trying desperately to encourage other prisoners (and himself) to be steadfast in the face of unimaginable cruelty.

Micah is a younger, less acquiescent inmate and an archetypal little brother. John McIver’s depiction of this apprehensive soul in search of reason and truth in life is remarkably easy to empathize with as he becomes jaded and falls away from his firm beliefs. A very raw side of faith is shown through his journey, exploring deep seated doubt, guilt and regret, almost as if from a child’s perspective.

But it is Elsie, played with exquisite sensitivity by Heather Pattengale, who captures the audience and draws us into this harsh reality. At times, she sits onstage just listening to Richard and Micah as, through tapping, they discuss, console, confess and pray, and through this simple device, we the audience become a fourth character, sat in a fourth cell, contemplating the same fathomless conundrums of human existence.

In her pre-communist world, Elsie is a young artist and budding photographer with a boundless imagination, hungry for the little delights of the world around her. Hers is a harrowing story, and one of the most touchingly vulnerable confessions of true belief- “After the horror of the war, the regret of the war, in the silence from the front…The war made me long for, need for there to be good”.

It is an intrinsic pattern of the human condition to crave something greater than ourselves, something to lift the burdens of life and vouchsafe our higher purpose. The flickering memories and encounters of our three very different characters are relentlessly charged with both fear and joy, and always provoking deep personal reflection.

How much is one human life worth? What brings a person to the brink of not fearing but rather wishing for death? How do we learn to fully appreciate the infinitesimal joys that are the unsung building blocks of happiness -the written letters, the feel of arms around you, the tone and texture of a human voice, the sound of rain- precious moments which connect us all in our search for love and purpose in this life?

Witnessing something so deeply troubling may not be everyone’s idea of a great night at the theatre, but We Are The Body is rewarding, moving, and at times delightful too. Although the physical brutality is viscerally upsetting, it is the plays scrutiny of the depths of personal loneliness and our innate impulse to cry out for companionship which leads to enlightening and uplifting realizations.

We Are The Body tours the prairies at the following locations: May 5-9 at Red Deer’s Scott Block Theatre, May 13-23 at Calgary’s Pump House Theatre, and May 26-31 at Saskatoon’s Studio 914 Theatre. The show runs at 2 hours including intermission with a 7:30pm curtain for evening shows and 2pm for matinees. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.burntthicket.com.

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