Review: "DISSIDENTS" at ARC

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Theatre Critic

A confusing and unfocused script

The Story – In this English language world premiere of Quebec playwright Philippe Ducros, a man, Him, sits silently behind a glass partition. Her sits on the outside of the glass partition. We assume Her is possibly a psychiatrist or psychologist as she poses questions to Him and leads him (and us) to understand why he is behind this glass partition. Has Him committed a crime of some kind? What kind?

We discover a possibility that Him has done something wrong, but is it real? Is it imagined?

The Other One enters and tries to extract information from Him about why he is behind this glass partition.

The Opening Night Production – Dissident:  n. a person who opposes official policy. I looked it up for clarification.

And with this understanding, I ventured off with a friend to the abandoned Furniture Emporium on Bloor Street West. Even before the performance began, audience members were invited downstairs to partake in a pointless, ridiculous and rather peculiar exercise of filling in a questionnaire from CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) of various questions about remembering three images. We were then asked questions to answer Inaccurate, Neutral or Accurate. Two statements were blacked out. A code was placed on our sheets.

I was asked to follow someone where my picture was taken, and I was asked not to smile. Was this evening going to be audience participation as well? I’m not keen on this kind of theatre.

We were then told to stay downstairs and to look around the nooks and crannies of the area. I had visions of some of the Walking Dead come jumping out at me from the darkened corners.  One room had what appeared to be some sepia toned pictures pinned on a rope. Would my picture be up here shortly?  As more of the audience entered, the waiting area (holding cell?) became warm and claustrophobic.

When we were led upstairs into the performance space, we were divided into two areas of the auditorium according to the code on our questionnaires. We were then told to put on the headphones and not to remove them. We would then be instructed to remove them later.

As I placed the headphones on, I could hear whispered fragments of conversations going on interspersed with sounds of all kinds.

Once the performance began, it became apparent why the headphones were necessary. The conversations between Him, Her and the Other One were so quiet and subdued, and the headphones allowed us to hear these conversations. A clever technique as I felt at times that I was eavesdropping.

It was a full house and it became quite warm in the auditorium. Was the pre-show feeling of claustrophobia downstairs my connection to Him and what he felt behind the glass partition? Ok, that part I understood but there must be more to this story.

I returned to the definition of ‘dissident’ I looked up. I still cannot figure out how or why Him has opposed official policy.

I don’t fault the actors at all in their performances. Aviva Armour-Ostroff as Her, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Him and Christopher Stanton as The Other One Herein intrigued me more so for their performance style and their vocal tonality and quality.  Projection Designer Melissa Joakim and Sound Designer Michael Rinaldi‘s immersive design where Him speaks to his daughter is creepy and eerily effective.

 L: Aviva Armour-Ostroff as Her   R (behind partition)  Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Him

L: Aviva Armour-Ostroff as Her   R (behind partition)  Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Him

When we were instructed to remove the headphones near the end of the performance, the performers give final information to us. I still cannot explain how this story ends.

Dissidents is a confusing script. So much information is thrown at us regarding why Him has been thrown behind this glass partition. There is no clear focus in this story.

As we exited the building, we were given a manila envelope with CONFIDENTIAL written on it. Hurray, at least I can try to understand what this play was about!  Sadly, the information didn’t make sense to me at all. At least I learned more about the performers and the production team from the bios in this package.

Final Comments – I’m frustrated and disappointed the script did not allow me to make any personal connection to the story and the characters. I really wanted to like this play and its’ promising premise, so I looked at the media release again.  Her has tried to extract a confession from Him to no avail as he chooses to dissent.  This part is clear.

It’s this sentence in the media release which confuses me: ‘The enemy has become virtual, the world has overdosed on progress, and the crash could be catastrophic.’ My late brother used to say, “What da hell was dat?” and comically grimace his face if something confused him.  I’m saying and doing this now.

Dissidents runs May 5-20. Email info@arcstage.com to come see behind the glass. Tickets are available at dissidents.brownpapertickets.com

Running time 2 hours with no intermission

Performers: Aviva Amour-Ostroff, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, Christopher Stanton

Designers: Nick Blais, Jackie Chau, Melissa Joakim, Michael Rinaldi, Lorena Torres Loalza

Original Music by Joelysa Pankanea

Stage Manager: Tamara Vuckovic

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