Local playwright Andrew Kooman clearly knows how to pen a compelling script, complete with well-rounded characters and engaging, insightful storylines.
And on the heels of his last critically-acclaimed and hugely successful work, She Has A Name, comes We Are the Body which is currently being staged at the Scott Block Theatre through to May 9th. Several more shows are planned for Calgary and Saskatoon as well.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. nightly with 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets are on sale for $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Tickets are also available online at www.burntthicket.com.
We Are the Body explores the lives of three prisoners of conscience in communist Europe in the 1950s. It’s a raw, challenging and inspiring exploration of a time in history which I believe is far too often overlooked.
Kooman has clearly done his research in creating the broad foundation of the play all the way down to the most intricate of details. We as the audience are swept into the bleak and oppressive period from the get-go, and even though the set and lighting designs are relatively simple, they work beautifully to enhance what’s unfolding onstage.
Kooman has also explained he was inspired by two powerful stories as the idea for the play surfaced – Brother Andrew’s recollections of delivering Bibles into communist countries in the height of the Cold War, and Richard Wurmbrand’s experiences of being imprisoned for his Christian faith, as recounted in his classic book Tortured for Christ and other writings.
As mentioned, in We Are the Body, the story focuses on three prisoners – each trapped in solitary confinement – behind the Iron Curtain of post-war Romania. Elsie’s (Heather Pattengale) only companions are Richard (Tim Bratton) and Micah (John McIver) who she cannot speak to or see in person.
In bringing the production to the stage, Kooman has teamed up with Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre and Stephen Waldschmidt, who also directed the mesmerizing She Has A Name. There is no doubt that Waldschmidt is the ideal person to stage these shows – he has a thorough understanding, in my view, of precisely what Kooman wants to convey the most.
As said, the story focuses on Elsie who is on the receiving end of the contraband literature and Bibles and ends up in jail. It asks that question to what extent can people hold onto to what they believe, and why do they hold onto it?
Elsie, Richard and Micah secretly tap out messages to each other in Morse code. These sounds trigger memories so the past and present collide in a heart-wrenching and occasionally humorous ways. This really serves to introduce us further to each one of the characters and their backgrounds as well.
Waldschmidt clearly has a way with actors – Bratton, McIver and Pattengale are all exceptional in their primary roles (they all portray other characters to lesser degrees as well.) Pattengale, in particular, is outstanding.
Her anguish over the non-stop suffering she endures in prison is heart-breaking. As a trio of prisoners, their literal lifeline is that tapping system they’ve worked out to communicate. That human connection – as makeshift as it is – is like pure gold to these desperate souls trapped in such horrendous darkness. To Kooman’s and Waldschmidt’s credit, we as the audience can sense the tension, the oppression and the gloom they endure on a daily basis.
For Elsie, Richard and Micah, the choice presented to them by their captors is to turn in their friends, give up names and betray people they love in order to end their suffering. Here’s where the choices come in.
And that is indeed the question that runs like a thread throughout the entire production. What can and will people endure for what they believe in?
Even when the powers that be think nothing of crushing the life out of you because you hold to your Christian faith for example, and you refuse to divulge the names of other believers, what will you do?
But whether one is a Christian or not, We Are the Body speaks loudly and clearly to virtually any audience, because the story is on many levels universal.
The courage that so many have held onto in the face of such horrors is well-documented, and the frightening thing is that so many of these types of stories took place not that long ago – in the middle of the 20th century, for example. It’s a sobering reminder of how precious life is, but also how precious freedom is that ultimately enriches and injects purpose into our lives.
A person can’t help but leave We Are the Body with a profound sense of gratitude for the legacies that we can look up to, and the priceless freedom we cherish today.
All of that said, it’s not an absolutely perfect production. I felt that the script wandered a bit in the second half and was just too lengthy. Kooman is a superb writer – no question about that – but with all due respect, there was just bit too much in the middle of part two. The momentum and tension couldn’t help but dissipate to a degree.
But ultimately, local theatre goers should be so proud of Kooman and his work. We Are the Body is no exception.
Check out www.burntthicket.com or www.andrewkooman.com.