Photog is an innovative undertaking
Created by Jay Dodge and Sherry J Yoon. A Boca del Lupo production, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At Studio T, SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, on Wednesday, January 23. Continues until January 26 at Studio T, and from January 30 to February 2 at the Shadbolt Centre
Boca del Lupo’s Photog is a seriously innovative and sometimes compelling piece of work. It’s also more of an inquiry than a story; ultimately, I longed for the context and relationships that could have resulted in greater emotional depth.
Jay Dodge and Sherry J Yoon based their script on interviews with four conflict journalists: Ashley Gilbertson, Tim Hetherington, Michael Kamber, and Farah Nosh. Dodge and Yoon poured the material they gathered (most of the script is verbatim text from the interviews) into one fictional character, Thomas Smith, who has returned to Brooklyn from Iraq because he’s being evicted from his apartment.
As he packs his stuff and avoids his landlord, Smith talks about the conflicts that rage within him: the traumatic memories and cultural confusion. Many of his tales are harrowing: he has seen men eat the hearts of executed prisoners. And the writing is sometimes arresting: he talks about feeling like a cat as he skitters, half-starved, through the streets of a war-torn African city in search of rotting mangoes and avocados.
For me, the most arresting material is about his inability to reconcile his first-world existence with the horror he has experienced elsewhere. He talks about how, when he comes home, people expect him to be chipper and friendly, to celebrate their rituals of security: their mortgages and marriages. He vaguely blames this blissful—and deliberate—ignorance for the suffering he has witnessed. And he talks about how he uses his camera as a filter: he can keep himself together when he’s looking through a lens, but starts to fall apart when his eye is unshielded.
All of this is intense and smart. It also gets repetitive. The framing device of the landlord who knocks on the door falls flat because it keeps hitting the same note. And by taking a serially anecdotal approach to the experiences of four people, the story ends up being about nobody. As the fictional Smith bounces from Iraq to Egypt, Haiti, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and so on, he displays no depth of understanding of any particular region or its politics. Crucially, he has no significant relationships. His life, as we see it, has few personal details and little history. So there’s no way to understand him, really. His motivation and his loneliness lack context. His alienation is evoked but abstracted. Structurally, the evening lacks satisfying shape and accumulation.
That said, Dodge, who is the solo actor, is quietly authentic in his delivery. That simplicity and the verbatim text create a documentary tone that demands attention.
And the staging is terrific, especially the production’s exploration of the theatrical uses of photographic imagery. Smith directs a flashlight beam to the floor and, as he moves it, that beam seems to burn its way through a neutral grey projection on the back wall, exposing details in a photograph of piled corpses. In a thematically central sequence, projected images of first-world happiness fill the wall and a live-action camera allows Smith to move through those photographs, an uncomfortable ghost.