By Tim Carlson. Directed by Jeremy Waller. A Theatre Conspiracy production at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab on Friday, April 17. Continues until April 25
It’s personal—and that may be the best part about it.
In playwright Tim Carlson’s Foreign Radical, audience members actively—and physically—examine their relationships to privacy, security, and government surveillance.
Staying on its feet, the audience moves from one playing area to another within the Vancity Culture Lab. When we meet The Host, he feels like a huckster or a cabaret emcee, clad as he is in a white tuxedo and pink bowtie. He soon invites the group to start dividing itself up according to answers to various questions.
Depending on how you respond, you move to a different quadrant of the room you’re in at that point. Are you an atheist? Have you surfed porn in the last 24 hours? Have you made an online purchase in the last week? Have you signed a petition critical of the federal or provincial governments? Within the group of 20 audience members, it’s interesting to get a concrete, comparative sense of how vulnerable you’ve made yourself.
It can also be astonishing to see others express their viewpoints. The night I attended, two guys happily acknowledged that they’d spy on others if the money were good enough.
A slim narrative weaves its way through the performance, delivered in the voice of a guy named Hesam whose friend Jamal has terrorist sympathies.
The focal point of the evening is the U.S. government’s terrorist watchlist. You can be put on that list even if there’s no proof that you’re a threat and, once you’re on it, travel—among other things, potentially—will become very difficult. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to be listed, either. With Stephen Harper’s Conservatives calling environmentalists a terrorist threat, this should give us pause. And let’s not forget Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who, in 2002, was detained mid-transit by U.S. officials on suspicion of being a terrorist and sent to Syria, where he was tortured. (This took place before the current watchlist existed, but the threat is similar.)
At the dramatic climax of the evening, audience members debate whether or not to list a guy—presumably Hesam.
This level of personal engagement is unusual in the theatre, and it’s stimulating, as is the fluidity of the event: your experience is, to a very large extent, determined by the audience members you’re seeing the show with. Milton Lim, who plays The Host, is a dynamic, charismatic guy. And Cande Andrade’s video design is often stylish.
The concentration on the U.S. watchlist, as opposed to Canadian-made threats to liberty, is a little odd, though, especially at a time when the Canadian government’s Bill C-51 is poised to turn CSIS into the Stasi, the East German secret police, I could also have used more narrative—including clearer consequences for audience choices. And the ending still has me shaking my head.
But privacy, security, and government surveillance are important things to think about, and Foreign Radical provides a very cool format in which to do that thinking.