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Review: NUMBERS INCREASE AS WE COUNT... at MAI — Not a Performance, but a Protest

Review: NUMBERS INCREASE AS WE COUNT... at MAI — Not a Performance, but a Protest

Numbers Increase As We Count... has been mounted at Montreal, arts interculturels, (MAI) by Thought Experiment Productions. Written by Ülfet Sevdi, the interdisciplinary performance grapples with the fate of women in Iraq, post-American occupation. The situation is dire: with thousands of women left helpless, displaced, starving, and forced into sex work. Along with Burcu Emeç and Itir Arditi, Sevdi weaves a jarring, painful portrait of the lives and deaths of these women. This is done while the performers count out loud in English, Turkish, and French, each number representing the life of some woman or girl lost to violence, with the knowledge hanging over that an accurate number could never be achieved-because the number grows every second.

The performance begins in the reception area at MAI, with the coat check and the bar and the entry to the washrooms all visible. The attitude as I arrive is jovial and friendly, with people drinking and speaking. Slowly, we notice performers moving around, and Sevdi, Emeç, and Arditi begin handing out slips of paper with passages of information on them. These passages are written in English and French, and a microphone is handed around for a few people to read. These people do not volunteer, but are chosen. There's a theme of consent in a lot of performance art and interactive theater these days, where performers make sure they do not corner someone sensitive in the wrong place. Numbers Increase as We Count... does not seem to be as concerned with that. The concern that is there is broadcasted only on Sevdi's face, which transmits a balance between her gentle, sympathetic eyes and her mouth set in a determined line. She speaks in both Turkish and English throughout the performance, and although I don't speak a word of Turkish, Sevdi manages that thing that is relatively rare: there is a pure distillation of feeling in everything she does that registers even though I do not understand the words.

"This is not a performance," Sevdi says, lapsing now into English, "this is a protest."

We are led into the darkness of the theater.

Numbers Increase as We Count... conveys historical and contemporary fact, highlighted with a multi-disciplinary array of performance styles which bring these facts to life. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the most vulnerable populations were the ones who suffered the most. Women, girls, and small children were left abandoned by war, random violence, and property destruction. Brothels sprung up-many specifically to service the American soldiers. These girls and women were treated like things: a resource to be utilized and disposed of. Iraq's politics became more and more extremist, as Americans specifically sought alliances with the most right-wing politicians. Aid groups that sprung up within the country to help these women and girls were declared illegal by the UN and the American occupation. An interview with Yanar Mohammed, one of Iraq's most prominent feminist activists and the president ft he Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, spells out the more damning side of the direct effect that the influence of American imperialism have had in the political structure of the country.

The soundscape of the piece, by sound designer and co-founder of Thought Experiment Productions, is jarring and eerie and at times strikingly beautiful. Usually it's jarring, as I'm sure is the intention. Jarring, too, is the images that flash on the screen behind the performers, which are tableau'd by the actors: adolescent girls in dancer's regalia, adult men leering from the sidelines, the floor covered in money. Women bound in a filthy shower, bent over and begging. A girl half-dressed, pulled over an American soldier's lap. The corpses of two bloodied girl children, lying on their backs in the grass.

Numbers Increase As We Count... is unapologetic. It is not a story, and it is not necessarily entertainment. It's an artistic piece that seeks to honour and humanize people lost to dehumanization and violence. I found myself grasping at anything, anything at all, that was not completely bleak. The performers lay down shirts and dresses to represent the bodies which no longer fill them, and then put them on, layering the clothes and repeating names. Layla, Malek, Nadia. At one point, Sevdi stands in a sparkling, pink skirt. It is so pretty. Miriam. I feel a sadness unlike the sadness I've experienced in theater before-which is usually a sort of joyful, hopeful sadness, an understanding that it is good and appropriate to be alive and to be seeing this and to be feeling this way. Numbers..., instead, leaves me feeling muffled by helplessness, bruised by the knowledge that somewhere these things have happened, these things are happening. There are things I can do, maybe, going forwards, but there is nothing I can do for the woman or the girl who suffers now, who is already gone.

I left shaken. On the metro home I put my face in my hands and started weeping. I didn't stop for a long time.

You can learn more about Thought Experiment productions at their website.

For more information about current and upcoming works at MAI, click here.

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