Winner of the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, Colleen Wagner’s The Monument is a dramatic play about the nature of war, conflict, and justice. Although set in an unnamed country during an unspecified time, the distinctly Eastern European flavour of Wagner’s drama bears many similarities to the Bosnian Conflict (1992-95). What makes Wagner’s dramatic work so powerful, however, is its relevance today in Canada.
Presented by Theatre of Consequence at the Motel Theatre, The Monument tells the story of a soldier named Stetko (Jonathan Molinski), a young man set to be executed for his heinous crimes. Stetko is guilty of raping and murdering 23 women, all of whom he buried in a forest. While awaiting his execution, Stetko is offered reprieve by a local woman named Mejra (Karen Johnson-Diamond) who demands he obey her unconditionally for the rest of his life, otherwise he can die in prison. Stetko accepts Mejra’s offer, despite not knowing what her intentions are, and goes to live her.
Director Conrad Belau has added a third character, played by Caitlyn O’Connor, to Wagner’s two-person drama. The Girl is neither seen or directly addressed by the characters. She is an unseen, but unshakeable presence in the show. In one scene, O’Connor plays a large rock that Mejra wants dug up from the garden; in another, she is the pet rabbit that Steko comes to care for above himself. She comes and goes like a painful memory from the past.
For Wagner, war is not so black and white like a game of Chess. There are opposing sides, yes, but the pawns thrown into battle are everyday people. Stetko tells us that if he had disobeyed orders to join the army, he would have been labelled a sympathizer, and likely killed as a result. Stetko’s obedience to authority is what has kept him alive, but has also pushed him to commit unspeakable crimes, condemning him for life as a war criminal. And while he recognizes that he is a criminal, Steko also believes himself to be a victim of war. Before the war, he lived a normal life with his family and girlfriend, both of whom he loved, but then all that changed when he was drafted.
Mejra has no sympathy for Stetko. In fact, she has no respect for him as a human being, going so far as to cutting off his ear and viciously beating him (fight choreography by John Knight). Knowing full well that the world will forget what happened in her country, Mejra seeks out justice for herself and her daughter, one of Stetko’s victims.
What is justice, though? There is justice as defined by the legal system, and then there’s justice as defined by the court of public opinion. The Jian Gohemshi trial showed us that these definitions of justice can arise simultaneously, but that they cannot co-exist without issue. Mejra sees justice for the murdered women as Stetko not only confessing to his crimes, but also helping her make sure that none of the murdered women are forgotten. She makes him dig up all the bodies that he buried in the forest and help build a monument in memory of the 23 murdered women.
Here, the monument is a patchwork of dresses that rises above the dirt where they were buried. The image immediately brings to mind The REDress Project, created by Jamie Black. The monument is Mejra’s answer to the indifference of global politics and systemic oppression that marginalizes violence against women. It is all that Mejra feels she can do as an average citizen.
For Mejra, this is only symbolic justice. She nearly murders Stetko before realizing that violence is not the answer. Stetko proposes forgiveness, that maybe he and Mejra can live together since neither one of them has anyone else. Wagner leaves the future uncertain.
Belau displays a strong understanding of Wagner’s play and its universality, regardless of its parallels to the Bosnian Conflict. It is clear that Belau knew exactly what he wanted this production to achieve and say about violence against women, and that sort of confidence is key to such an impactful and challenging text. The end result is, a thoughtful, well-staged production grounded in today’s headlines.
Molinski and O’Connor are two actors that really ought to be on everyone’s radar. The actors share this very disturbing scene where Molinski recalls in painstaking detail the final moments of his most memorable victim, played by O’Connor (with her hands tied by rope, suspended in the air). Molinski unleashes something very dark in the character as he tells Mejra, with sinister glee, everything about that night. O’Connor’s heartbreaking terror and helplessness makes us want to retreat away from this emotionally charged scene. It is a truly fearless and mature performance from both Molinski and O’Connor.
Johnson-Diamond ventures into vast emotional territory as a sorrow-stricken mother whose moral compass is confused after meeting Stetko. Her vengeance is motivated by immense hurt, and not so much a thirst for blood, which is important given the character’s arc. It is a steady performance punctuated by moments of sheer brutality that Johnson-Diamond plays very well.
Theatre of Consequence’s debut production is a must-see.
Theatre of Consequence’s production of Colleen Wagner’s The Monument runs June 15-18 at the Motel Theatre (Arts Commons).
For more information about Theatre of Consequence, including how to purchase tickets, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/theatreofconsequence/?fref=ts