A Line in the Sand: the horror of repression and humanity
by Drew Rowsome- photos by by Dahlia Katz
Powerful performances and ingenious direction almost conquer the awkward structure of A Line in the Sand. The intentions are heartfelt and noble but when the tense seduction that is the first part of the first act becomes a spoken word lecture, the tension deflates and the two women-of-a-certain-age in front of me were as puzzled as I was. "Is it over?" one asked. "I think it's intermission." "Do you want to stay?"
Fortunately for them, they did stay. They would not want to have missed the first part of the second act which replaces cruising with a cat and mouse game with very high stakes. Again the tension ratchets to unbearable delicious heights, before being undone by another lecture, though at least this one is in the form of a theatrical monologue. It is as if the playwrights, Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef, don't trust the audience to get the message that had already been so ably presented. Or to believe that the emotional punch of the dialogue will conjure the extent of the horror of the boy's fate.
They could have had faith. In the first act a 16-year-old Palestinian boy hustles a Canadian soldier. They bond over pornographic photographs that the boy is selling, and the power dynamic and connection between them is finely balanced between erotic and comic. The boy is played so convincingly and appealingly by Danny Ghantous that, when the horrors come, the audience still sees his face, feels his joie de vivre, and he haunts the stage even when absent. He has a visceral impact that required no explanation beyond his performance.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams has taken advantage of the "Naked Season" concept (stripping a play down to its text and raw emotions) to compensate for the unevenness of the tone. Set on a raised platform sandbox, the metaphor is made explicit when the boy offers a pack of Marlboros (a handful of sand) for sale and they, like his dreams of a life in America or a relationship with the soldier, dissolve and slide through his fingers. It is a subtle but heartbreaking moment. The symbolism does stretch a bit too far and the final cascade of sand became almost comedic (I couldn't help but think of Carrie at the prom) instead of devastating.
Morgan David Jones has the most difficult role. He begins full-tilt then, in the inverse of a usual character arc, elides effortlessly through playful, seductive and dangerous, to arrive at barely contained seething repression. He is equally capable of being adorably innocent and utterly chilling, often within seconds, often standing at attention unable to use anything other than his eyes and voice. His pas de deux partners are just as good. John Cleland's conniving and blunt interrogating colonel thrusts and parries with deceptive ease. He takes no joy in the game but finds great sadistic pleasure in winning. Their scene together is mesmerizing.
But it is, as it should be, Ghantous whose puppy-dog eyes and gawky physicality become the heart of A Line in the Sand. He is desperate to be rich, desperate to be loved, desperate to have a voice, for his people to have a voice, and if that means romping shirtless, cajoling, being humiliated, and allowing a single stubborn tear to fall into the sand, he will. And Ghantous, against all odds, even manages to almost sell the final monologue that stretches on while stating the obvious.
The nightmare that is the conflict in the Middle East, any war or human tragedy, is as complicated and constantly shifting as the waves of sand that are the central metaphor. Perhaps the structure of A Line in the Sand was meant to reflect that. But the shocking gay twist - though I doubt anyone, even the ladies in front of me, didn't see it coming - which was powerful as a rich sub-text, robs the play of its power by placing blame, making an convenient excuse, instead of accepting the true horror, the ambiguity, of humans in senseless conflict.
As humans, as an audience, we have been conditioned to not feel. We are bombarded daily with atrocities that are beyond our ability to comprehend or bear. But if we stop feeling we lose our humanity. The boy tries to re-ignite the soldier's feelings, the Colonel tries to force the soldier to confront his feelings. A Line in the Sand shows us the horrible price that is paid when our feelings are denied or repressed.
A Line in the Sand continues until Sun, March 27 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca