Trevor Abes: Writer

Tag: alma matters productions

Review: Swim Team (Nowadays Theatre with Alma Matters Pruductions)

Swim Team Poster

Swim Team introduces us to an Iranian all-women swim team as they train in a town with no pool. The play—produced by Nowadays Theatre in collaboration with Alma Matters Productions—is an act of worship to the imagination and the barriers it can remove. It’s also a stirring metaphor about gender inequality for presenting a world where women’s rights can fall into the fantastical territory of make-believe.

The cast are on a whole other level of play here. Think about the imaginative demands placed on their characters. They swim by acting out the motions on a dusty patch of land, using towels and wringing out wet hair to keep up the suspension of disbelief. It’s enough to make you feel young again, when limitations on what might exist weren’t really an obstacle. 

But at the same time, having to occupy a space of make-believe just to participate in a sport is a powerful metaphor, one that seeks justice for oppressed women by imbuing their struggle with absurdity. As in, it’s absurd for the team to have to disavow their humanity and fictionalize their own existence to jump into some water. As in, it’s absurd that women need to strive to make something from nothing in a country where they’re already second-class citizens. The team doesn’t mention state-enforced ideology much at all, which made it harder for me to ignore its shadow in the background.

Roya (Banafsheh Taherian), the swim coach, carries the memory of students drowning on her watch with palpable anxiety. It makes for good fuel to drive her to whip her current team into shape but feels too high-octane for the task. The excess energy she could be using to forgive herself for losing the students is piled onto her new ones, generating an imbalance where something has to give, and I was on board to find out what did.

Roya and her three-person team occupy a hierarchy of strength, such that she seems tougher than Nary (Tina Bararian), who seems tougher than Katy (Mahsa Ershadifar), who seems tougher than Lili (Aylin Oyan Salahshoor). This is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it lends a sense of order to the story, one that speaks to the regimented country they live in, the geometry of the imaginary pool they swim in, and just makes things that much tighter symbolically. It’s also a strategy that offers many chances for disruption, such that characters often change rankings. Sharing how would just spoil the story.

The details surrounding the team’s imaginary swims had me laughing the hardest. Stuff like drying off a diving board, taking deep breaths after each stroke, or making sound effects with a tub of water to mimic a toe in the pool. It’s such a roundabout way to participate in the sport, it’s as if I was watching a living Rube Goldberg Machine. I was also laughing because I couldn’t recall the last time I tried anything without filtering it through some sense of what could and could not be.

Playwright Jaber Ramezani plants little nuggets throughout to further comment on fantasy’s relationship with reality, and on his characters’ ability to imagine the lives they want into existence. For one, I became familiar with characters’ motivations as they interacted during practices, but they actually share very little about their personal histories. This combo adds up to intimacy that is somehow both authentic and fabricated. I was left thinking that we are the stories we tell ourselves, as well as solely responsible for how good we get at believing in them.

There is also Lili’s unacknowledged arm pain, which might seem disjointed but fits into the same line of thinking. Her pain is not worthy of belief as far as her coach and teammates are concerned; therefore it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Lili goes along with this erasure, replacing her pain with the truth that best serves her, that there is water in the pool. This malleability of self has a revolutionary kick to it. Lili and her team assert their autonomy and go about their business by playing God, picking and choosing the sensations and situations that deserve a life of their own. 

What ties it all together for me is how even the difficulties of friendship contribute to the team’s air of refuge. In spite of how annoyed Lili gets by Nary’s teasing, she misses her when she’s not around. And even though Lili calls her names, Nary returns to her side. Regardless of the dispute, they stick together, tight as confidants, extending each other the benefit of not having to self-censor to explore who they are. By the end, this bond borders on the sacred.

Swim Team is a bountiful offering of child-like wonder that speaks to the realities of Iranian women without overt politicization. I was combing through the layers of its deceptively simple story long after the curtain fell.

  • Swim Team runs at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West) from November 8-17.
  • Tickets are available online, in person, or through the box office at 416-538-0988.

Poster provided by the company.

Review: Non Gratas (Alma Matters Productions)

My latest review for Mooney on Theatre.

nongratas1

Non Gratas, A Latinx Comedy Show With a Lot of Melodrama, is an improv comedy show that does its name proud. Produced by Alma Matters, and staged at Bad Dog Theatre Company, it’s loosely built around two young Latin American women who become friends after immigrating to Canada. As they struggle to connect with a new culture, they highlight the gap between two stereotypes—Canadian humility and Latinx passion—with jokes that kill but also let me into their devastating longing for home.

Marta (Mariela Pabón Navedo) is a newcomer from Puerto Rico, hungry for love and friendship, who’s been having a rough time connecting with everyone she meets. That is, until she runs into Maria (Patricia Tab), an Argentinian experienced with the culture shock of new arrival. Maria not only finds a friend and roommate in Marta, but also someone to save from the pains of finding your footing as a foreigner.

Each woman sees herself reflected in the other, the first time they recognize themselves in another person since arriving in Canada. Here, they feel like personae non gratae, both unwelcome and misunderstood. They explore this notion not so much through a plot, but by developing their relationship through different improv scenarios.

One recurring segment is a simple back and forth, where Marta and Maria trade off lines built on a central theme. It’s kind of like stand-up comedy with the added jolt of improv. The first of these segments explains how showing emotion is a daily part of Latinx life. The duo conveys this through sweet, poetic exaggerations that perfectly encapsulate the issue. Selected gems include how, in Puerto Rico, it’s normal to get your heart broken on a daily basis, and how, on any given morning, Argentinians may fall in love with someone they saw at a bus stop.

On another back and forth, contrast is exploited to maximum hilarity. Marta has a breakdown and deciphers a lover’s text out loud in front of co-workers during a business presentation. Juxtapose her hysterics with Maria, who quietly poses grand philosophical questions about feeling like parts of her are missing when friends and lovers move on. My favourite is the surreal, “Where do trees go when they want to leave?”

At one point, it turns out the duo have been dating the same Kyle. This leads to them riffing on being Canadian and our well-known typecasting as somewhat dull, polite, and self-effacing apologists. They find nuance in this overplayed subject by concentrating it in Kyle’s love for fishing, and their exasperation at how anyone could find something so boring so interesting. Maria sums up the Canadian-Latinx divide when she asks, rather memorably, “Why it is so hard for men to understand that, sometimes, I just need to argue with someone?”

Non Gratas also includes a number of karaoke performances. It’s another avenue for Tab and Pabón Navedo to depict Latinx effusiveness, this time as a way to exorcise your frustrations by letting them out on stage. The performances are moments of abandon and disinhibition. Open invitations to join in a glorious cacophony of bad singing and dance my troubles away.

Marta’s unrushed, deadpan delivery and Maria’s fretful, anxious musings play off one another from moment one. The dynamic adds a backbone of sharpness to material. It goes a long way to making up for the occasional weak line, or moment of dead silence, which comes with the improv territory if you ask me.

Monica Garrido, member of Sketch Comedy Extravaganza Eleganza, warmed us up with stand-up that showcased her confident, goofy style. She told stories of growing up religious in Mexico as a closeted lesbian and how that compares to a more diverse but no less skewed Canadian existence. One where, she notes, Mexican people are considered brown, whereas in Mexico, they’re just Mexican. Her writing is concise, her timing surgical, and her dance moves during the karaoke segments unrivaled in terms of funkiness.

My guest, Jonah, thought Non Gratas did justice to the strength it takes anyone to bridge two cultures. Though the show brims with laughs, they are often a coping response to how hard it is to make a life far from home. The characters open the tap to that feeling and never turn it off. “I couldn’t help but wish them well,” he said. His one note, given the show’s 45-minute run-time, was that some scenarios would benefit from greater length.

Tab and Pabón Navedo—who perform as a duo under the name Non Gratas—keep the electricity of uncertainty in the air. The show truly feels like it’s being created as they go, minus all the stops and starts you’d expect if that were actually the case. A lot of this has to do with their fearlessness in the face of “yes, and”. But it’s also tied to how the show’s big-picture subject, our need for community, boils down to winging it, introducing yourself to a stranger, and seeing what happens.

Details:

Photo of Mariela Pabón Navedo and Patricia Tab provided by Alma Matters Productions.

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