BWW Review: ELSEWHERE at Centaur Theatre - Classical Mask as Protest Theatre
Elsewhere has been mounted by Odd Stumble Theatre Collective in association with Imago theatre. Directed by Cristina Cugliandro and written and performed by Joy Ross-Jones, it ran from January 24th to January 27th, 2019. In Elsewhere, we follow six narratives on the Venezuelan political crisis, and are offered insight into the human cost of the ongoing conflict.
A young Venezuelan-Canadian expresses frustration about her disconnection from her home country. A street protester clashes with regime forces. A former beauty queen explains how she feeds her children. A police officer voices resigned dissent about aspects of his job. A grandmother reflects on the importance of keeping up appearances. A Cuban-Venezuelan explains how he gets by. Ross-Jones, as the storyteller, lapses between characters, languages, ages, and genders with minor adjustments to her wardrobe and a series of masks.
Elsewhere is heavily influenced by classical theatre, especially Greek mask work. The set is simple, with an open suitcase on on front stage left, and a series of metal grates that evoke barricades set up in a swoop, the first few toppling to resemble falling dominoes. A crew of sound designers comprised of Joel Gorrie, Rene Orea, and Zachari Smith drive home the impressive character switches with a lush collection of Venezuelan music ranging from rambunctious, to sad and longing. The characters are each brought to life by Ross-Jones with the high degree of energy and enthusiasm consistent with Greek mask work. The distinct characters succeed to varying degrees. From my perspective, it was her elderly characters who are the most believable, her more morally ambiguous characters who are the most compelling, and a self-insertion the begins the work that falls the most flat-a vulnerable perspective from a displaced Venezuelan-Canadian seems jarring when presented with a highly affected gruffness, like there is a disconnect between the content and the form of the monologue. If there was an intentionality to this disconnect, it wasn't clear.
Venezuela has been embroiled in a political crisis for decades, but the current wave of unrest began building after the last highly-contested election. The night before the opening of Elsewhere, Juan Guaidó was declared interim president, rivaling official president Nicolas Maduro. Critics of Maduro's regime cite a 60% malnutrition rate amongst children, a nationwide shortage of resources, high rates of organized and random violence, and suggestions that the country has been operating heavily off of proceeds from the trafficking of narcotics. Critics of a potential regime change suggest that the current resource crisis in Venezuela is the result of meddling from international powers who want access to Venezuela's oil reserves (the largest in the world), and to continue a decades-long attempt to destabilize strongholds of socialist power. Dominant media narratives depict the contested status of the presidency as either an attempt to overthrow a corrupt narco-state, or a foreign-backed coup, without much nuance in between.
At the talk-back after the show, we were invited to ask questions of a panel (Ross-Jones, Cugliandro, documentary filmmaker Liz Miller, and journalist Rafael Osío-Cabrices). I asked the very patient panel what they think is missing from dominant media narratives about Venezuela, and no one felt they could answer. At a reception featuring incredible Venezuelan food from Sabrosísimo Deli, Cacique Grill, Cachitos, and Bocadillo, I was approached by a few Venezuelans who offered their perspectives: I heard people say that the regime in modern Venezuela makes a mockery of legitimate socialism, that the narcotic trade has touched every part of Venezuelan life, and I was offered perspectives about the lasting impact of colonization and imperialism. I reached out to people in my own social network, from all areas of the political spectrum, and got another set of perspectives: one half-Venezuelan Canadian offered that Guadió's appointment as interim is more legitimate and constitutionally sound than Maduro's most recent election, and that claims about his ties to fascist politicians in Brazil are overstated. Another Venezuelan national insisted that the socialist policies in place in Venezuela are authentically socialist, regardless of how successful they are. A Canadian leftist pointed out that a large sum of Venezuelan gold is being held by a bank in the UK, which has been requested for food and other supplies and hasn't been released. Yet another member of the Venezuelan-Canadian community said that the US has been using its position as Venezuela's largest trading partner to undermine socialism in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez was in power, most recently by heavily affecting their economy with extensive sanctions.
During the talk-back, an audience member pointed out that each perspective offered by Elsewhere is one that is critical of the regime. If statistics are to be believed, then there is still a large percentage of Venezuelans in support of Maduro and the legacy of socialism in Venezuela. Any kind of truly sympathetic support for Maduro, and the context this kind of information may provide for viewers, is not present in Elsewhere-but Elsewhere is a work of art, not journalism, and as such as no obligation to provide perspectives that aren't authentic to Ross-Jones and Cugliandro's vision for the work.
Elsewhere has finished its run at the Centaur, but is a touring production. To have Elsewhere performed at your school, in your community or organization, please contact Imago Theatre at 514.274.3222.
The following resources were provided by the creative team at Odd Stumble and Imago, who ask that you consider donating to provide humanitarian relief in Venezuela:
Genven, a Canadian non-profit that offers medical support to youth in Venezuela living with disabilities and critical health conditions. Healthcare in Venezuela is currently extremely limited. Contact Maria Margarita Torres, director at email@example.com
The Venezuelan-Canadian Engagement Foundation, a non-government organization working to re-establish an acceptable quality of life in Venezuela by providing humanitarian aid.
Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, a Canadian non-profit organization promoting democracy, human rights, social justice and good governance in Venezuela.
Venezolanos Por La Vida - Canadá, a subdivision of the Canada Venezuela Democracy forum that coordinates, collects, and sends medical supplies and medicine to health service providers and human rights organizations across Venezuela and in neighboring countries.
Productions by Imago have a limited number of tickets available at a pay-what-you-decide rate, where the company is compensated by viewers with donations of at least $0.05, made after you view the piece, in an effort to make live theatre more accessible.