Review: MARTYR at Aki Studio

ARC's exploration of religious fanaticism offers no easy answers.

By: Jan. 22, 2023
Review: MARTYR at Aki Studio
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Marius von Mayenburg's MARTYR, a 2012 German play in its Canadian premiere at Aki Studio, tells the story of radicalized Christian teenager Benjamin Sinclair (Nabil Traboulisi), and his crusade of extremism that damages everyone around him. ARC's production of Maja Zade's translation, under Rob Kempson's sharp, slick direction and in the hands of an assured cast, exposes some flaws in the idea-heavy play's script. However, it ultimately succeeds in showing theatre's great power to ask big, unsettling questions without feeling the need to provide easy answers.

Benjamin's single mother Ingrid (Deborah Drakeford) doesn't know what to do with him when he refuses to participate in swim class due to his female classmates' "immodest" swimwear. Neither does his religious school's earnest chaplain (Ryan Hollyman), disaffected gym teacher (Richard Lee), or clueless, sexist principal (Ryan Allen).

Benjamin seems hell-bent on condemning everyone around him to the place downstairs; spouting Bible verses with awkward fervour, he becomes increasingly ostracized. Soon, he's only approached by a classmate seemingly intent on torturing the ascetic with her feminine wiles (Charlotte Dennis), and the credulous school outcast (Adriano Reis), born with one leg shorter than the other, who seeks his friendship and approval.

However, it's in the school's guidance and biology teacher, Erica White (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), where he meets the Clarence Darrow to his William Jennings Bryan. Incensed by Benjamin's increasingly erratic behaviour and comments, and sick of having her attempts to teach sex ed and evolution rebuffed by an administration that tells her she'd be prettier if she smiled more, she makes it her mission to meet Benjamin on his own turf to teach him the error of his ways.

MARTYR exposes the seductive possibilities of obsession in its biting script. In particular, it examines our ability to turn any sort of belief system into a sort of religion, any cause into a crusade, in a desperate desire to be able to explain the world around us and to be "right."

The show also takes a look at the fracturing of community in our current reality, in how its characters, lost to each other, find comfort in insularity. For example, Benjamin's religion is not just one of fire and brimstone, but one that delights in exclusion until there is literally nobody left who can meet its demands. As well, it may take a village to raise a child, but the teachers are exhausted from being asked to be surrogate parents; Benjamin's beleaguered mother hurls insults at the faculty who are unable to change his behaviour, telling them that since she barely sees her own son due to work, it is their job to guide him.

The show is complex and thoughtful, stirring up lots of emotions. It flows relentlessly from beginning to end, intense and tense, as we wait for something to explode. Kempson's clean, simple direction assists it, the audience on two sides watching a bare central raised platform, as eight actors enter and exit from their orange plastic chairs on the sidelines.

Performances are strong across the board. Traboulisi's Benjamin, reedy, hunched, and fragile-looking, spits venom like the most vile denizens of an internet comment section. His intensity is matched in a constant tug of war with Armour-Ostroff's, as neither are willing to let go of the rope. Drakeford constantly looks like she left her patience in her other pair of scrubs, Allen wanders superciliously through his office, smiling emptily, and Hollyman maintains a quiet, gentle earnestness as he tries to direct Benjamin to use his beliefs in a more constructive way.

Matching the simple aesthetic of the direction, James Dallas Smith's minimal sound design is also effective. It suggests the cavernous inside of a church with a well-placed echo effect, and filters in an occasional ominous droning and chanting at moments where Benjamin's ranting takes a more sinister turn.

MARTYR is a highly potent "idea play." This also means that sometimes the relationships get a little buried under the rhetoric. In an attempt to address such a multifaceted slate of issues, it creates a number of flawed, complex characters, many of whom have a point, but none of whom is a mouthpiece for unassailable rightness. However, it leans so hard on exposing the flaws of its characters that it risks becoming simultaneously complex and one-note, that note being an overall tone of frustrated despair. I was struck by the very occasional moments where we got to see something kind or vulnerable peek out within the debates and confrontations; by playing more with this push and pull, we might feel more investment in Benjamin's story and his connections with others.

In particular, I would have loved to have seen more nuance in Benjamin's relationship with his mother, or a sense of who he was before his religious obsession took hold, perhaps even what precipitated it. As well, with the heightened complexity of other characters, Benjamin's female classmate and his principal stick out as more plot devices than people.

The relationship between Benjamin and disciple George is one of the most interesting in the show, Benjamin at times seeming to reach out with a genuine desire for friendship, but at other points only seeing the other desperate young man as a tool, or dismissing him as a "cripple." For George, their discussion sessions fall into the realm of make-believe, Benjamin's passion chief among his attractions. It's fascinating to watch it unfold, though Reis, while playing his sweet and sincere best as Benjamin's wide-eyed disciple, feels somewhat miscast as a school-wide social outcast who gets regularly thrown into dumpsters.

Finally, it seems churlish to mention this, but the initial curtain call music is clever but jarringly twee, prematurely ending my breathless contemplation of the play's final moments.

Overall, though, MARTYR is a bracing bit of theatre that doesn't necessarily go where you would expect, which is a good thing. Interestingly, for all his pontificating, Benjamin seems content to let the world be destroyed instead of making his own sacrifices. It's a telling trait that underscores the dangers of hiding behind the words of others.

Note: MARTYR is for mature audiences. It includes scenes of violence and blood, and frank depictions of misogyny, homophobia, and antisemitism.

Photo Credit: Sam Moffatt


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