Review: BESBOUSS-Autopsy of a Revolt

by Lynn on November 19, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Streetcar Crow’s Nest Theatre, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont

Written by Stéphane Brulotte

Translated by John Van Burek

Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar

Set and costumes by Teresa Przybylski

Lighting by Jennifer Lennon

Soundscape by Daniel Morphy

Cast: Saïd Benyoucef

Adam Paolozza

Background. On December 12, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor was so frustrated by the corrupt government bureaucracy that he set himself on fire. He had three degree burns over 90% of his body and died. It is said that event was the beginning of the Arab spring, protests across the Arab world against corruption.

The Story. Besbouss- Autopsy of a Revolt references Bouazizi’s suicide as Dr. Karim Djebara (Saïd Benyoucef) a forensic pathologist is given the job of doing the autopsy and proving the government did not beat up Bouazizi before hand and is therefore innocent of wrongdoing. Immediately we are alerted that all is not right.

Bouazizi (Adam Paolozza) was selling his wares without a permit. He objected to various departments trying to fix the situation. It was frustrating. He could not get straight answers. He tried to follow the procedure but was thwarted at every turn. In frustration he doused himself with gasoline, lit a lighter and immolated himself.

We are told in Stéphane Brulotte’s playwright’s program note that Bouazizi’s mother called him “Besbouss” meaning: “The one we want to kiss.” The dialogue in the play says “Besbouss” “means covered in kisses.” The term of endearment is clear. As is the irony—would a young man so warranting in kisses be so dramatic as to set fire to himself unless the cause was so important?

The Production.  The production is directed by the hugely gifted Majdi Bou-Matar. While Bou-Matar came to Canada (he lives in Kitchener) from his native Lebanon his heart and mind are certainly focused on the revolution that is happening across Lebanon now. It certainly informs this production.  Bou-Matar brings a vivid sense of imagery to his productions and there is that as well as a muscularity and sensitivity in every aspect of Besbouss-Autopsy of a Revolt.

Designer Teresa Przybylski has envisioned a cold, claustrophobic world in her set design. The walls appear to be made of dull metal and they tilt in to give a sense of closing in on the people in it. A window is high up the wall but one doesn’t sense there is light in there. There is a door up right. A gurney is in the middle of the room and a body-bag is on it. It’s obvious there is a body inside the bag but after careful watching I could not see the rise and fall of a person breathing inside the bag.

Dr. Karim Djebara comes into the room with his medical bag and stands a long time looking at the body bag on the gurney. He sets about taking out his white lab coat from his medical bag. He talks to himself and the body. He carefully unzips the body bag revealing the grey almost naked body of Bouazizi. There are bits of bandages on him and a cloth jockstrap of sorts containing his genitals. He is bald and absolutely still.

Dr. Djebara knew Bouazizi years before when they were both younger. He is not happy to be there and has contempt for Bouazizi for what he has done. He is also angry because he has to tow the company line. He has to prove that Bouazizi was not slapped or hit or physically mistreated in any way for the purposes of the autopsy. We learn that Djebara is the go-to man for the government to cover up any wrong-doing. He goes along with it to protect his family, himself and his career. But this job is different. While I look carefully at Adam Paolozza lying in still repose, not breathing, the body then comes to life, twitching, contorting and talking. It’s to his skill as a movement based performer that Paolozza appears not to be breathing on that slab when of course he has to be.

Djebara and the spirit of Bouazizi engage. Bouazizi as played by Paolozza is lithe, agile, graceful, almost balletic and athletic. Paolozza never raises his voice. He doesn’t have to. Djebara engages realizes that his conscience is being tested and raised. It’s an interesting confrontation.

There is a whole aggressive procedure as various types of gels and liquids are spread over Bouazizi’s body to remove the burnt skin so that Djebara can see if there is bruising on. The stuff gets on the walls, Djebara’s pristine white lab coat and various surfaces. I wonder why the play requires this exercise. Since Djebara is the only one in the room doing the autopsy and he’s lied before about the government’s involvement with violence and torture, what difference does it make if he doesn’t do all this smearing etc.? A fault in the play?

Saïd Benyoucef is a celebrated actor in Montreal, performing regularly in French and Arabic. This is his first performance in English. I must confess I found it difficult understanding him when he talked; his accent is so pronounced that I miss a lot of what he says in spite of listening hard. It’s obvious both actors are committed to the project, I just wish I could have understood Saïd Benyoucef better.

I’m grateful that Majdi Bou-Matar is back in Toronto directing—we see too little of his work here. I first saw his breathtaking production of The Last 15 Seconds at the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille. Then at Summerworks a year ago he directed Adrenaline by Ahmed Maree.  Both are harrowing stories of immigrants and people dealing with horrific events in their home countries. Bou-Matar will be returning to Toronto with two shows: Suitcase and Adrenaline in the new year. Don’t miss them.

Comment. Majdi Bou-Matar creates theatre in Kitchener. For about 10 years he curated the IMPACT Festival of international productions in Kitchener. I saw several stunning productions of this past festival from Tunisia, Ecuador, Iran, Six Nations from Toronto (a devastating piece called The Mush Hole about residential schools) and Montreal. The breadth and quality of the productions programmed are astonishing. Majdi Bou-Matar’s determination, artistry and vision are impressive and much needed. Why isn’t Majdi Bou-Matar in Toronto at Harbourfront, resurrecting the moribund World Stage Festival? He would be perfect. Just sayin’.

Pleiades Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre presents:

Began: Nov. 7, 2019.

Closes: Nov.20, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

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