The Ridiculous Darkness is a shape-shifting satirical romp with a serious message
By Wolfram Lotz. Translated by Daniel Brunet. Adapted by Daniel Arnold. Directed by Marisa Emma Smith and Nyla Carpentier. Produced by Alley Theatre in partnership with Neworld Theatre. At the Annex on November 11. Continues until November 19
I doubt you’ll find another show this season that manages to cram as much humanity—in all its dazzling variety—onto the stage as The Ridiculous Darkness.
The oxymoronic title is appropriate. Adapted (by Daniel Arnold, who’s also in the cast) from a radio script by German playwright Wolfram Lotz—which is itself adapted from both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation, Apocalypse Now—The Ridiculous Darkness is both deadly serious about “the horror” that people inflict on each other in the name of “civilization” and endlessly flippant about how it makes its points.
In Conrad’s novel, Marlow pursues a mysterious Mr. Kurtz; both are representatives of a colonizer culture, encountering the “savages” in an unfamiliar land. Just as Coppola transposed the action of Conrad’s novel from the Congo to Vietnam, Lotz relocates both those texts to “the rainforests of Afghanistan”. This cavalier approach to geography allows German military Sgt. Oliver Pellner and his sidekick, Stefan Dorsch, like their literary predecessors, to travel down a river in pursuit of Deutinger, a military officer gone rogue. Along the river’s banks, Pellner and Dorsch meet various “natives”, including a brass band, a children’s choir, powwow dancers, and street vendors—and suddenly we’re not in Afghanistan, but right in the heart of Vancouver.
Within this shape-shifting, freewheeling structure, colonial power and dominance are a consistent thread: in a long prologue, a Somali pirate on trial in Germany recounts how he and a friend worked and saved money for a fishing boat, only to go out and find the sea empty, depleted by European fleets, “its glowing bottom made not of sand, but of rage.” Oppression is insidious, and not always overtly political: in one powerful scene, we meet a group of “coltan farmers” played by actors with disabilities who reject others’ attempts to label them.
Directors Marisa Emma Smith and Nyla Carpentier exploit the looseness of the play’s structure to shift rapidly between dramatic and emotional textures. The coltan farmers speak with heartfelt passion right after we’ve listened to a series of comically petty complaints from a ridiculous officer, for example. An exquisitely colourful and graceful powwow dance is followed by a televangelist-style reverend tearing off her vestments to reveal a sexy cowgirl costume. The show unfolds as a constant adventure, sometimes hilarious, sometimes earnest.
A core cast of six actors play multiple roles; in another nod to fluidity, the casting of major characters, like Pellner, Dorsch, and the Somali pirate, is repeatedly switched up. With her firm handle on the play’s absurdity, Amanda Sum is a source of constant delight; her attention to status and rhythm are gifts to the play’s comedy. Miranda Edwards’s quiet naturalism and Emilie Leclerc’s warm sincerity are in tune with the play’s spotlight on injustice. Munish Sharma and Clint Andrew are also solid, and Arnold is always crystal clear, even when voicing the uncertainties of Lotz himself (and wearing a giant cutout of the German playwright’s face).
The spirit of satire spills over into the show’s design, with strategically placed details in Nita Bowerman’s costumes, layers of referentiality in the music chosen by sound designer James Coomber, and the atmospheric textures of John Webber’s lighting.
Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, The Ridiculous Darkness sometimes feels like it’s trying to do too many things at once. But it’s doing more things—and different things—than many shows even attempt. For that ambition, for that big, vivid display of humanity, and for its inclusiveness in its efforts to bridge distance and difference with compassion and understanding, I’m grateful.