Reviews: SIA and BLISS

by Lynn on March 31, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two plays were reviewed on March 30, 2012, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5FM: SIA at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 15; BLISS plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until April 8.

The host was Rose Palmiere.

1) Good Friday morning. It’s Friday morning and Lynn Slotkin our theatre and Passionate Playgoer is here to tell us what she’s seen this week.

Hi Lynn.

What do you have for us today?

I have two plays.

SIA by Matthew Mackenzie, is a play about wanting to do humanitarian deeds in a war-torn African countries, juxtaposed with the horrific stories of those war torn countries.

And BLISS by Olivier Choiniere (translated by Caryl Churchill) is about celebrity worship—be it about the glitz of Celine Dion or the celebrity of the terrible case of Isabelle Cote. In the play both stories are blended in a provocative way.

2) Ok. Let’s start with SIA. What does the title mean? And what’s the story?

Sia is the name of a young girl of about 11 years old.

For most of the play the story is about Nick and Saa (Saa is Sia’s older brother). Nick is a young Canadian, full of noble desires to save the world. He decides to go to Ghana to work in one of the refugee camps. He is befriended by Saa who saves him from a scam artist who is about to coerce him out of a lot of money.

Saa and Nick bond. Just before Nick is to return home, Saa and he go for a boozy good-by evening, which ends with Saa tying up Nick to a chair. Saa is going to use Nick as a pawn in the on-going war between Liberia and Ghana. Saa had been a child soldier in the conflict and was now trying to make amends by doing right for his country.

The play is divided between scenes in which Saa is Nick’s ruthless captor and intends to use Nick no matter how brutally for his own ends; and scenes with Saa’s younger sister, Sia. Here he is playful, sweet, patient and disarming.

3) SIA sounds like it’s packed with drama and possibilities. Is it?

(LYNN)Matthew Mackenzie’s play is certainly well-meaning in trying to illuminate the terrible goings on in refugee camps in Ghana and to show the atrocities in Liberia.

I just wished he was clearer in establishing that the two countries were at war and that many Liberians were in refugee camps in Ghana because they were fleeing their brutal country.

But more than well-meaning, the play is suffused with a smothering sense of naivety. Nick is so naïve in his noble wish to do good but is so unprepared for the rough world he will be going into.

When Mackenzie himself went to Ghana to research the play and gather interviews, he admits he had not prepared himself at all either.

Mackenzie fills his play with horrific stories of torture that are based on fact. Coupled with this is Nick’s naïve behaviour—for example, falling for the scam of a man who needs medicine and has no money because his backpack was stolen. Such naivety might be accurate in the world of the play, but it does not make for good playwriting and in this case weakens the play.

The play seems naïve and even clichéd, noble intentions notwithstanding.

4) Does the production illuminate things that got lost in the script?

Unfortunately no. But it is interesting to see how variable Saa is. It’s interesting to see Saa’s patient devotion to his younger sister; how he tolerates her stubbornness—a trait that will save her later. Next to that gentleness, Saa’s single-minded aggressiveness is startling.

Perhaps I might have missed much of the historical information if it was given at all, because the actors playing Saa and Nick yelled so much that what they said was lost.

As Nick, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett has a disarming sweetness to him, and he’s almost like a baby he’s so naïve in this dangerous country.
And when he’s pleading for his life, that’s when matters get fraught.

As Saa, Thomas Olajide is sweet and protective of his young sister, but an angry warrior when dealing with Nick. Again, he bellows philosophy, history, political information and for much of it, it’s unintelligible.

As Sia, Jajube Mandiela is fresh-faced, stubborn and quietly fearless in her own way.

The play is directed by Nina Lee Aquino with a certain economy. For much of Saa’s dialogue to Nick, Aquino has him facing the audience. This gives what he’s saying a more weighty importance, which I can appreciate. It’s just that too often it feels as if he character is lecturing us. The play SIA is a noble effort by playwright Matthew Mackenzie.

Now he has to revisit it; figure out what story he wants to tell; and tell it clearly, believably and with more rigour.

5) And now the wonderfully named play BLISS. What’s the story here?

The play is revealed to us by 4 people, employees of Wal-Mart, obsessed with Celine Dion and her farewell performance.

As well as a court case involving the death of Isabelle Cote, a young woman held captive in her home, shackled by her ankles to her bed, and raped and beaten by her brothers and father over 17 years.

Isabelle apparently was also obsessed by Celine Dion. She wrote her a fan letter. Then the person obsessed over became obsessed by this fan. So the four people show us their hero worship—and the bliss they get by it—as well as their obsession with this horrible case. In a sense the four represent our obsession with celebrity, be it entertainers or headlines.

The lines between the two become blurred.

6) How do they tell the story? Is it different from the regular way of ‘acting’—

Yes. The four don’t really interact. They tell us what happened rather than show us. So they stand and deliver to us. One of the four makes sure that the details are correct. She might correct the order of how Celine talked to her fans on stage.

“NO she raised her hand on this word?” Things like that. Now ordinarily this might be boring. It’s like reading a book aloud. But the four are so lively and enthusiastic in their telling and certainly when recalling that final Celine Dion concert.

And they are just as serious when recalling the gruesome details of Isobelle Cote’s life. So writer Oliver Choiniere has deliberately chosen this way of telling his story. We do get the sense of the obsession in both cases. Unusual but done well, thanks to this cast and their director Steven McCarthy.

McCarthy is first a fine actor now adding directing to his repertoire. He moved the cast well: the set is intriguing—a close-up of a face on a wall at the back—Celine?

A raised white platform with a simple bed in the centre of it—where Isobelle was shackled. Also a soundscape that enhances the production but does not intrude. It’s an intriguing story, play and production.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING’s theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

SIA plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 15.

BLISS plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until April 8

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