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Over the first hour theme, casting, sound design, the plot's build, indeed all elements of theatre are charmingly displayed. It's A Chorus Line by way of of Ivo van Hove with a dash of The Office for good measure. On the stage prop elements are disjointedly scattered as a cameraman films a short series of mundane auditions center stage. Sitting through this first hour, watching props linger in limbo and then burst to life, one comes to the impression that such cold anatomizing of theatre is the main concern of Milo Rau's La Reprise, now on stage in the Avignon Theatre Festival's Gymnase du Lycée Aubanel. Then, all at once, the elements synthesize and the play careens towards brutal tragedy. Rau's patient preceding hour of pulling back the curtain does nothing to undermine or offer respite from the horror that follows.

The events of the play are set in the industrial Belgian city of Liège. One by one actors sit in front of a camera center stage with the live video feed projected onto a big screen. They audition-interview with a local director and portray themselves as amateur locals who fell into acting. During this interview process their artistic boundaries are discussed and they perform their seemingly limited talents. body is examined as the 67-year-old Suzy Cocco and Johan Leysen discuss their intimate lives entirely nude both on stage and on screen. Simultaneously, bubbling through the disjointed action is documentary like testimony from a man regarding the murder of his friend Ihsane Jarfi. Ihsane Jarfi was beaten to death by a group of young men for being gay in 2012. His body was found mutilated and nude two weeks following his murder. It's worth noting that this is sadly not fiction.

As the play now teeters on documentary, so does the nature of the filming change. The untethered camera follows the action, though it is no longer giving live feed. The action in the space doesn't deviate far from what the bodies do on the screen, but it's clear the elements are not exact. Such differences range from imprecisions in simple hand movements, to the presence of people on screen who are noticeably absent in the stage action. Moments are presented in an episodic manner, almost as though we were witnessing the cobbling together of a research process. We see Ihsane leave a gay bar. We see an anonymous man attempt to seduce a woman and be firmly rejected. Then, act-five of the tragedy arrives, as a car glumly rolls on stage.

Act five, titled "Anatomy of a crime," is as harrowing an experience I've ever witnessed in performance. Ihsane gets in the car with three men. The mood is light as the four young men joke. Ihsane makes light of his homosexuality. This is news to the other three men, especially the one sitting next to him in the back seat who shoves him aside and starts hurling insults at him. Ihsane attempts to deescalate the situation and asks to be let out of the car, but it is too late. The three men continue speeding away beating him. They then pull over, and shove him in the trunk. He quietly begins to pray. The man in the back seat beats him some more. All the while the camera never deviates from his face and we are forced to be witness to the horror, tragedy, and chaos of the events. Stopping a final time, Ihsane is taken from the trunk, beaten, stripped nude, and urinated on. All of this occurs on stage. It is a scene that left me, and much of the audience feeling paralyzed.

Before these scenes in Liège, actor Johan Leysen performs a monologue as Hamlet's Ghost. He follows this performance with some musings on life and death and the divisions between character and actor. With the first hour, this moment feels part and parcel with the introspective display of the theatrical process. However, after watching a simulation of a human life getting taken away, and recognizing that this was meant to simulate an actual event, it feels tangible. The five-act tragedy renders an unmistakable brutal catharsis.

It is then that the action deviates from the crime as Ihsane stands, and is no longer Ihsane, but actor Tom Adjibi. He spits out some stage blood and is given a robe. The cast introduces us to a seldom-manifest sixth act. This is an act to clear the stage, to re-render the space a theatre again, and the characters to actors. Sara de Bosschere offers a tender and stirring monologue. She calmly recalls a conversation she had with an ex of Ihsane during the research process. The actors then shrug off their collective baggage of character be it lover, killer, or victim, and become artists on a stage.

An understood quality of theatre is the distance taken by the spectator. Audiences are not to intervene with stage actions unless explicitly informed to do so. Most of the time this framework is understood and doesn't pose much of a problem. However, there are rare moments of powerful storytelling where you feel compelled to storm the stage, and change the actions unfolding. Though, stopping the action on the La Reprise stage would do nothing to change the reality of the story. We are willing bystanders to theatre, and forced bystanders to history. This strain to intervene creates a useful hunger in the stomachs of an audience. It perhaps will make us take advantage of our agency where it matters: today in the world.

The strength of this cast is unassailable. The unflinching clarity offered to each role shows undeniable courage. One has to wonder how Tom Adjibi endures the role of Ihsane to such fullness night after night. It is a herculean task. In addition, Fabian Leenders takes on Ihsane's murderer as a human being. He mines human sympathy and disgust without asking us to reject either. The set and costume design by Anton Lukas are appropriately mundane, never drawing too much attention to themselves and accomplishing the tasks at hand. Jurgen Kolbs lighting creates cinematic vistas and decisively transforms Lukas' warehouse scenography. Lastly, Maxime Jennes and Dimitri Petrovic perfectly integrate their video work into the action of the play. The film never distracted, it only ever enhanced the totality of the performance. Milo Rau has created nothing short of a shocking success. I pray the day comes when such artistic experiences are not necessary. Though, in our world of catastrophe, he offers something visceral and vital.

Photo Credit: Hubert Amiel

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From This Author Wesley Doucette