Adapting celebrated young German writer Wolfram Lotz’s The Ridiculous Darkness—a satire that throws Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now into a blender with current events—would probably have been enough of a challenge for Vancouver’s Alley Theatre. The radio play won the 2015 prize for German play of the year, and bringing its wild trip to the stage involves all kinds of creative interpretation. Alley Theatre is even installing a mini zipline and a moving boat in the Annex space for the show.
But on top of that, the troupe is adding eight community groups to its six professional actors—from the Downtown East Side Street Market Society to the Afghan Benevolent Association of B.C., Realwheels Theatre, and the East Van Powwow Crew.
It’s a project that’s turned into an epic adventure. But when three key members of the creative team—adapter and actor Daniel Arnold, plus codirectors Marisa Smith and Nyla Carpentier—gather in the downtown Vancouver Public Library atrium to discuss their massive undertaking, they agree that they have now moved on from feeling overwhelmed.
“We’re amazingly past the point of ‘Can we do this?’ ” Arnold tells the Straight. “It has turned a corner into ‘How wonderful it is to jump across a place of not knowing and get to the other side.’ ”
It must be noted that, as he’s saying this, Arnold is wearing a giant cardboard head on top of his own noggin, one that depicts a smiling Lotz himself. It will later be worn by various members of the acting crew in a play that will often switch roles and go meta. You might even say the massive project has gone to Arnold’s head.
“We knew from the get-go that not only would this be incredibly time-consuming but incredibly uncomfortable,” Arnold says of creating The Ridiculous Darkness. “But that is the show: people are going into foreign territory and it’s going to get very uncomfortable and they’re even going to go crazy in some ways.”
Lotz’s elaborate satire of our postcolonial world begins with a Somali man on trial for piracy, then morphs into the story of two German soldiers sailing on a boat down the “Hindu Kush river” in search of a rogue colonel. Just like the soldiers in Francis Ford Coppola’s famous film, they start to lose their grip on reality, and their stops along the waterway become ever more surreal. During the voyage, Lotz aims his barbed absurdities at western insensitivities to nonwestern cultures and people from war zones.
Alley Theatre has put a further spin on all of this by working in representatives of eight different cultural and nonprofit groups—41 performers in all—imbuing The Ridiculous Darkness’s global perspective with distinctly local relevance. “What we wanted to do was ‘by the city, for the city’,” Arnold explains of Alley’s first foray into such a large cast.
Arnold and Smith got the idea from a massive show in New York City that they saw performed by Broadway actors with different community groups, from Filipino nannies to drag queens. They said the production stuck with them for days.
Here, that means Theatre Terrific and RealWheels performers living with disabilities become farmers and miners of the coltan used in cellphones; a variety of local marching bands become the members of a military camp; and Tetsu Taiko drummers pound out the rhythms of a “guru camp” along the journey, according to Arnold.
“This way it’s a Vancouver infusion, trying to turn the camera lens around,” Smith explains. “It’s about understanding language barriers and cultural barriers and how we move past that. And working with community groups: they really enriched us. They bring their own unique flavours to the show.”
The groups have had a lot of input into the script and how it’s staged, she adds. “Because the piece is contentious, that’s something really important about it: we’re honouring people’s experiences. It’s important to learn how it’s resonating with them.…That has been so important to us: to always have fresh eyes in the room, because sometimes you are dealing with such contentious subject matter.”
“We’ve all been influenced,” confirms Carpentier, a Tahltan/Kaska powwow dancer and theatre artist. “With all of the complexities of culture we ask for understanding of each other. In the end we can simply understand each other if we take the time to ask the questions and listen.”
With that in mind, talkbacks with each of the community and cultural groups follow The Ridiculous Darkness; there are also workshops and other events.
The massive process of staging the play has transformed its participants, and its creators hope it might get audiences to question their own biases and preconceptions, too. “Through working with the Downtown Eastside groups and offering these stories and ideas, and just hanging out and getting to know them—for me it’s just confirmed you need to treat people as equals, as human beings,” reflects Carpentier. “You start thinking of ways to support people, versus shutting them down.”
Alley Theatre, in partnership with Neworld Theatre, presents The Ridiculous Darkness at the Orpheum Annex from Saturday to next Sunday (November 11 to 19).