Based on the 2008 novel of the same by Canadian author Rawi Hage, Jonathan Garfinkel’s Cockroach is a story about failure, namely the failure of multiculturalism in Canada. Uncomfortable truths come to surface in this play that rips the seams of our nation’s beloved cultural mosaic during a time of heightened awareness around newcomers and refugees.
Enjoying its world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects, Cockroach stages the journey of an unnamed Middle Eastern immigrant (Haysam Kadri) in 1990s Montreal. The play opens with The Narrator waiting patiently for Shohreh (Daniela Vlaskalic), a troubled young woman from Tehran, in the dingy basement of the restaurant where he works, as a busboy. Through flashbacks, the audience learns more about the Narrator’s past in his home country, and his experience living in Canada as an immigrant. More about the Narrator’s life is revealed during his state-mandated therapy sessions with Genevieve (Carmen Grant), a psychiatrist whose privilege as a white Canadian stands as an obstacle between the two.
Gun in hand, the Narrator continues waiting for Shohreh in the present, preparing himself for a decision that will change his life forever.
Addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Garfinkel writes (in his Playwright’s Notes) that Cockroach is not about the debate surrounding whether or not to let refugees into Canada, but about life after arrival for immigrants. The play goes beyond the feel-good propaganda of multiculturalism, choosing to present instead a less-than-glamorous portrayal of a predominantly white society where racial prejudice and discrimination exist, whether the Canadian public wants to believe it or not.
From the bottom looking upwards, the Narrator sees Canada as a nation of hypocrites. Lying underneath Canada’s “perfect white skin” is a history of cultural genocide, systemic racism and fear of the Other – which presented itself in full force during the 2003 SARS Outbreak. Genevieve buys into the myth of Canadian multiculturalism, while the Narrator lives its failed promises everyday, making their relationship tense as a result. Although he may be uneducated and afflicted by mental health issues, the Narrator’s difficulty adjusting to life in Canada is not made any easier by living in the slums of a country steeped in inequality.
Interestingly, the very thing that ties the Narrator home is what help him survive on a daily basis – storytelling. Sometimes, stories are all immigrants really have when they arrive, and it’s through metaphor that the Narrator can make sense of the world he lives in.
The problem with Garfinkel’s Cockroach is that the play falters in the middle, loses steam from an otherwise strong beginning. Kadri’s devilish charm adds plenty of punch to his character’s zippy one-liners about Canada, but even his charm can’t help the problems that come from relying on a narrator and flashbacks to tell a story. The show has a little more in common with an audiobook than a fully staged production. Events in the narrative are relayed primarily through the Narrator, with occasional glimpses to the events themselves. The narrative suffers from this abundance of talk that acts as a wall between itself and the audience, resulting in an experience that is somewhat difficult to invest into emotionally.
Director Vanessa Porteous, artistic director of ATP, brings a keen sense of space to the production, a premiere of a new Canadian play. Kadri’s character identifies, intimately, with cockroaches, insects that are known as survivors of even the worse conditions (like nuclear wastelands, a popular myth). Most importantly, the cockroach is mobile. Porteous’s direction sees a strong sense of displaced movement onstage, the type of movement expected from an outsider in a hostile environment. Porteous gives the actors breathing room to react big and almost candidly (well, as candid as can be for a scripted show). Even still, the play’s lengthy narrations remain spatially uninteresting, and that’s likely due to the limited cast available to give the story more dimension, both dramaturgically and spatially.
Narda McCaroll’s appropriately ‘grimey’ set is cast in layers of shadows by Anton de Groot’s lighting design. Groot’s lighting work is important to distinguishing the social tiers Kadri’s character visits, by legal means and otherwise, over the course of the play. The higher he travels, the more light there is on stage, and vice versa. Cockroaches flood the stage thanks to clever projection design by Amelia Scott and Joel Adria.
Again, Kadri’s charm gives energy to the play. The Narrator is deeply flawed, engaging in misogyny and theft at every corner, but Kadri makes us root for the underdog, hope that the character’s inner-goodness – the kind that betrays good-natured people – pulls through. Meanwhile, Vlaskalic plays her character with a defensive edge, an edge with many sides. She and Kadri share great chemistry as they encounter each other from such different, but not distant emotional levels. Vlaskalic shines in the play’s final moments, delivering an intense performance. The well-intentioned Genevieve is not such a straight-forward role as it may seem. It’s not just a psychiatrist assessing the mental state of a Middle Eastern immigrant, but a person of privilege reassessing the state of their country’s imagined national identity. Grant successfully brings out these dimensions as she plays Genevieve with just a hint of ignorance, and a feigned sense of relation to the Narrator.
Issues aside, Garfinkel’s Cockroach is a play that deserves our attention as it offers insight into Canada’s cultural landscape from an often ignored perspective. Or, if not ignored, a perspective taken over by well-meaning (white) Canadians. ATP’s production of Cockroach is relevant, bold, and likely to ruffle a few feathers.
Jonathan Garfinkel’s Cockroach, based on the novel by Rawi Hage, runs March 1 – 19 at Alberta Theatre Projects.
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://atplive.com/whats-on/cockroach/
An earlier version of the review incorrectly credited Anton de Groot for the cockroach projection work. The review has been updated to credit co-projection designers Amelia Scott and Joel Adria appropriately.