By Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Carmen Aguirre. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, November 16. Continues until December 1
No two refugee or immigration stories are the same, and each deserves to be told with humanity, care, and honesty. Playwright Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) strives to centre these stories, particularly the “invisible brown workforce in North America”, as Carmen Aguirre writes in her director’s note. When so much theatre continues to be about the white middle class, Aguirre writes, this play is “an act of resistance”. And Aguirre is right. Even if Studio 58’s production of Anon(ymous) doesn’t always work, it’s still a welcome disruption and addition to Vancouver’s stages.
Anon (Ashley Cook) doesn’t know where he came from. He’s trying to piece together bits of memory and find his way home. But “home” is less a place at this point than a person, specifically his mom. Anon remembers bombs raining down, being held in his mother’s arms, and the boat on which he fled capsizing. After washing up on an American beach, Anon has spent years searching for his mother, surviving increasingly horrible situations and escalating violence at the hands of racist and predatory people.
This is where Iizuka’s script either shows its age or reveals that she was awfully prescient when she wrote Anon(ymous). Commissioned in the early 2000s to develop a piece for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Iizuka chose Homer’s Odyssey as a framework on which to base this play. The villains are almost cartoonishly terrible, and they’re played for laughs to a certain extent, but the horrors of contemporary reality have eclipsed Anon(ymous). When a sitting American president is leading chants of “Build that wall” and there are tens of thousands of people in concentration camps in the United States, it’s hard to appreciate the absurdity of a lecherous sweatshop owner, a perverted human smuggler, and a homicidal butcher pulling a Sweeney Todd.
Anon(ymous) is an ambitious production, technically and creatively. Jessica Oostergo’s set and property design is a highlight, finding multiple inspired uses for limited pieces: silver emergency blankets that are also used to simulate crashing waves as well as tabletops in a club; mobile chainlink fences used to indicate subway tunnels, back alleys, and detention centres.
The play is most successful in its moments exploring Anon’s memories. The cast get a physical workout as they bend and crawl and contort across the floor, turning themselves into waves that Cook must ride to convey Anon’s treacherous and tumultuous journey, a tragic rebirthing as he’s ripped from his mother’s arms and delivered into a colonized North America. Cook’s performance is a standout, and it’s hard to take your eyes off her when she’s on-stage. Anon is a difficult role, but Cook is a captivating lead actor and I can’t wait to see what she'll do next.