Review

War deserters, asylum seekers and new beginnings: 3 new made-in-Manitoba plays hit the stage

In an unusual flurry of new writing, three new made-in-Manitoba plays have seen their world premieres this month, and you have a last chance to see all three this weekend. Here’s what’s on.

Play based on stories of asylum seekers Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal among new works seeing premieres

Richie Diggs plays Hamza in One Trunk Theatre's Boundary Avenue, one of three new Manitoba plays seeing their premieres this month. (Caroline Wintoniw)

While the city's biggest theatres have ended their seasons, local independent companies are stepping in to fill that void — especially for fans of new works.

In an unusual flurry of new writing, three new made-in-Manitoba plays have seen their world premieres this month, and you have a last chance to see all three this weekend.

Here's what's on.

Deserter (Moving Target Theatre Company)

Based in part on interviews with real-life Iraq war deserter Joshua Key, Daniel Thau-Eleff's intriguing, inventive and intense full-length drama centres around Curtis Colby (Jeff Strome, who brings a convincing "everyman" quality to the central role). 

Colby has deserted from the U.S. army after serving in Iraq, but years later, he's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — which has caused him to become "unstuck" in time.

His bouncing back and forth from one time period and location to another (an airport in Winnipeg, battlefields in Iraq and the apartment he shares with his wife among them) can be discombobulating and make following Deserter a challenge — but that's not at all a bad thing here.

From left, Bill Kerr, Ray Strachan, Jeff Strome, Brittany Thiessen and Ahmad Meree in Moving Target Theatre's Deserter, a smart and thoughtful look at the issue of war deserters. (Rachel Blunden)

It becomes an effective depiction of the sometimes hopeless confusion of PTSD, and a powerful metaphor for Colby's displacement in the world — a criminal in his home country and under threat of deportation in Canada, he doesn't really belong anywhere.

Deserter veers toward becoming slightly polemic toward the end of its two hours, but the impressive five-person cast in director Arne MacPherson's production keeps the drama grounded.

It's a smart and thoughtful look at an issue that may seem distant for many of us, but which raises provocative questions about morality — and about what Canada wants to be as a nation.

Deserter runs until May 27 at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

New Beginnings (Sarasvati Productions)

New Beginnings likewise looks at what Canada really is — but from the point of view of those new to the country.

Drawing on two years of interviews with newcomers to Canada, New Beginnings uses an eclectic mix of dance, music, video, monologue and short scenes to explore the experience of making a new start in Canada — for better and for worse.

Sarasvati Productions' New Beginnings is not always professional or polished, but it is a joyful and tragic piece of collaborative theatre that genuinely reflects our community — one that's far more diverse than we often see onstage. (Laura Lindeblom)

Through the people whose stories we hear — ranging from a woman who escaped sex slavery under ISIS to a man who proudly owns a Tim Hortons franchise after working his way up from the counter — New Beginnings looks at the complicated mix of pride, gratitude and disappointment newcomers feel in their new home.

The performances from the cast of nearly 20 in the 90-minute "community collaboration" range from artful to amateur. The writing is sometimes a bit awkward but also often poignant — and both the stories and performances are consistently genuine and passionate.

It feels, in the end, like community theatre in the best possible sense. It's not always professional or polished, but director Cherissa Richards's production is a joyful and tragic piece of collaborative theatre that genuinely reflects our community — one that's far more diverse than we often see onstage.

Boundary Avenue (One Trunk Theatre)

Running in the same space as New Beginnings and presented as a double-bill with that show, Boundary Avenue offers a different look at the newcomer story, taking its inspiration from the stories of asylum seekers Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, who lost their fingers to frostbite while crossing the border at Emerson on Christmas Eve in 2016. (The men worked in collaboration with the show's creators, and are credited as "story sharers.")

They're represented here by Hamza (Richie Diggs), a gay man trying to escape persecution in his native Ghana by making the journey first to the U.S. and then to Canada.

His story intersects with that of William (Liam Zarillo, who co-wrote the show with Andraea Sartison and Caroline Wintoniw), a freelance photojournalist desperate to make his mark by getting a story about asylum seekers.

Saira Rahman and Richie Diggs in Boundary Avenue, a moving and thoughtful look at the many steps that bring asylum seekers to Canada. (Caroline Wintoniw)

Boundary Avenue sometimes draws on stock character types (folksy small-town residents and callow journalists, for example), but goes to great pains to represent both the decency and cruelty Hamza encounters on his journey — and the range of fear and compassion that asylum seekers like him generate.

The five actors (rounded out by Montana Lehmann, Sherab Rabzyor Yolmo and Saira Rahman in multiple roles) all deliver strong performances in director Debbie Patterson's stylish production.

And while the stories of Mohammed and Iyal — and other asylum seekers — have been told in many news stories, Boundary Avenue provides a moving and thoughtful look at the many steps that have brought them here to Canada.

New Beginnings and Boundary Avenue run until May 27 at the University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film.

Also running this weekend:

There's even more for fans of new theatre in Winnipeg.

Prairie Theatre Exchange's annual Carol Shields Festival of New Works runs until Saturday. You can see readings and workshop performances of new works in progress from notable local writers like Armin Wiebe, Frances Koncan, Debbie Patterson and Trish Cooper.

And more good news — admission to those workshops is free.

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