Broadcast Text Review: THEY SAY HE FELL

by Lynn on October 9, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following review was broadcast on Friday, October 9, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm; They Say He Fell at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, until Oct. 18.

Phil Taylor was the host.

Good Friday Morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What’s up for this week?

It’s been a slow week—with much drama being in baseball. But I have a review of one play, They Say He Fell by Nir Bareket and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, that’s playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace. It’s a play about memory and grieving.

Sounds heavy. What’s the story?

Nir Bareket was a celebrated photographer with an international reputation who lived in Toronto. He, sadly, died earlier this year, so never got to see the opening production of his only play. Co-writer Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is a playwright with several plays to her credit, so in a sense she provided playwriting experience while Bareket provided the story.

They Say He Fell is Bareket’s homage to his late brother, whom he idolized. The story is a memory play as the now 68 year old Bareket remembers his brother.

It takes place in the emotionally fraught days of the British partition of Palestine, before there was Israel. Bareket’s brother belonged to the Haganah (translated as “The Defense”), a Jewish paramilitary organization and was killed, while on duty. The event shattered the family to the point that they never mentioned his name again. The play chronicles how the family coped over the years.

As a memory play, how do they tell it?

Nir Bareket is the narrator of the story. Actor Steven Bush plays Bareket at the age of 68. Bush is craggy, thoughtful, sometimes tentative. He starts by telling us we will hear as well as listen, and gives us other vague references about what will be revealed to us. He also says that he had a happy childhood.

He pulls out two photographs from his shirt pocket of his family from long ago. One was of his parents, his older sister and older brother and him. In the other, his brother is missing.

We are given a bit of a history lesson of the various military outfits in Palestine, the Haganah being one.

Often the writing is densely poetic, lyrical , even esoteric, when simplicity would have been helpful. We wait to find out how his brother died and we learn it almost as an afterthought, it is so understated. Later there is a whole convoluted speech about the incident when simplicity is in order. We are told what should not have happened, but did happen. We are told of what should have happened, but did not happen. His brother’s death was a perfect storm of incompetence and mishap leading to that tragedy.

Again as an afterthought, we learn that when the brother died, he was 20 years old, and Nir was eight. From what Nir says, he was too young to remember details of his brother, but knew that he idolized him. So I’m thinking, this seems as if Nir has mythologized his brother’s life. And perhaps so did his whole family.

How does the production realize the play?

Steven Bush as the adult (68 year old) Bareket sits on a stool stage left and frequently reads from the script into a standing microphone. Often Nir (Bush) watches other actors play his father, mother, and brother from earlier times. In these memory scenes, Nir is very young and is played by a soft-puppet manipulated by actors as they speak his lines in a child’s voice. Even when he grew older he was still represented by a puppet but it was a larger one, suggesting Nir was growing.

Director Jivesh Parasram certainly has a vivid eye for images and packs the production with silhouettes behind a white cloth curtain; fashions the cloth into a winding river; and decides that the young Niv should be represented by a puppet. Initially, because so much is going on in various scenes it is not really clear that the puppet is in fact the young Nir. I think those young characters are playing with a toy puppet. In fact I found that too often too much activity from too many quarters distracted from the main point, and distances us from the emotion of the piece.

While the play certainly tries to honour the memory of Nir Bareket, you don’t seem to have liked the play.

It’s almost churlish to say so, but I have to look at it from a playwriting/production point of view. I can appreciate that Bareket was poetical and lyrical in his writing, but there is a sense of reverence about the whole thing when ruthlessness is in order.

Ruthlessness in tightening and clarifying the writing; a ruthlessness in asking why a play is being written about a character that the narrator can’t recall clearly.

In a late scene a character comes to see the adult Bareket and his sister. This man was a witness to the brother’s violent death but could not bring himself to tell the siblings for 45 years, he was so consumed by guilt. The gracious Bareket told him to chose life, to let go of the guilt and chose life and live it. Where does that thought come from? It certainly doesn’t come from the vaguely developed character we have been watching for about an hour. I have to ask why the whole family didn’t do that same thing—get on with their lives and chose life? They were consumed by grief for their fallen son/brother and seemed confined to that dark world.

So you are right, I was not keen on They Say He Fell. It’s a play about memory and grieving that is strangely alienating because of the disjointed storytelling and overly fussy direction.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter@slotkinletter.

They Say He Fell plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until October 18.


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