The 20th of November: a perverse inverse of an "It Gets Better" lecture
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Jeremy Mimnagh
Lars Noren's play The 20th of November is undoubtedly a powerful piece when presented in a traditional fashion. Like visiting the zoo or watching a portrait of a jailed killer or the insane, one can watch the poor creature, the other, and congratulate oneself on one's empathy and social conscience. Buddies' production of The 20th of November puts the audience in the cage with the creature, the other, and attempts to force an identification. When it works, it is extraordinary, excruciatingly uncomfortable and lacerating. When it doesn't work, it is because the tension between watching theatre, presenting theatre, and providing an experience, is a hard one to bridge.
The audience sits in a semi-circle, more therapy group than theatre, and the protagonist, who has been sitting meekly among us, begins his explanation of why he is, in "an hour and 12 minutes," going to bomb and shoot up a local school. He wants us to understand why. He wants us to accept our culpability.
Sooner or later, you all have to look at me.
Sina Gilani is remarkable, with big liquid eyes that make contact before darting away. Dressed in an attempt to be invisible, he slouches and turns inward, the incarnation of every introvert and bullied child. But a rage burns inside, slowly building, finally explosive, and ultimately futile. It is a perversely inverse "It Gets Better" lecture.
We sympathize, we identify (he is the protagonist we have come to see), and then it is flung in our faces. Our hearts break for Gilani, but we are terrified to actually engage. And we fear his attack, of being singled out, of being responsible, of being him or seen as similar. The one specific joke - "You wear a studded bracelet and call yourself edgy" - strangles in the throats of those who dare to laugh when Gilani fixes them with a glare that informs that we are not mocking some fashionista, he means us. There were walkouts and the lines between audience engagement, audience participation and audience indictment have never seemed thinner.
Stripping the stage bare, in the universal code for 'this isn't theatre, let's pretend this is reality," creates another level of unease. Buddies' remarkable series of one-man shows have previously depended on a high level of technology, everything here rests on Galani's fragile-appearing shoulders. By the time the minimal but frighteningly effective lighting and sound kick in, the theatricality is, ironically, overwhelming. Direct questions and Gilani's probing eyes make a plea to bridge, to connect our humanity, but also has everyone squirming in their seats. Do we respond? Do we flee? Please let him be talking to someone else. Moving from identification to guilt is a wrenching and almost unbearable journey.
Unfortunately the text lets the production down. Noren has crammed in every explanation possible and while all are valid, they become distracting. The ticking bomb is a wonderful device, we are invested in surviving and hold our breath, with all the suspense of a slowly counting down timer hanging in the air. Gilani pauses, to gather his thoughts (overwhelmed?) and the silence reverberates, the tension ratchets. Then there is a reference that places the monologue in a specific place and time, distances it. We snap out of our dream state, relieved, (disappointed? The 20th of November could be played as an immersive dark ride) that it is only a play.
The 20th of November ends quietly with a final desperate bid for acknowledgement or explanation, one that no-one on opening night was willing to attempt. Do we give the ovation - we have already been castigated for "applauding with thorns in your hands" - that Gilani and the production so deserve? We settle for clapping politely and filing out. The after party began somberly, most were still out front gulping at fresh air and processing, and no-one was used to being reviled instead of congratulated, thanked or given compliments on an opening night. I realized that the Shoppers Drug Mart was open 24 hour and I could pick up the floss and shampoo I needed and save a trip. I have never felt so shallow.
The 20th of November runs until Sun, Oct 4 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com