The Ridiculous Darkness: formally startling, movingly inclusive

Alley Theatre is producing The Ridiculous Darkness with Neworld Theatre.

Emilie Leclerc is givin’ it in The Ridiculous Darkness. (Wendy D Photography)

Don’t go to The Ridiculous Darkness if you’re looking for a standard-issue night at the theatre, or even if you’re only interested in fully successful productions. Do go if you’re up for an aesthetic adventure.

The provenance of this show is complicated. It started out as a German radio play by Wolfram Lotz that satirizes both Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel upon which the film is based. Daniel Brunet translated the radio play into English and Daniel Arnold has adapted it—freely—for the stage.

The project’s politics are simpler: we all have the right to be recognized for who we are. I haven’t read Conrad’s novel or seen Coppola’s film, but I am familiar with the criticism that has been leveled at both: in classic examples of the colonialist mindset, so the argument goes, the “savages” in these artistic products—the Congolese and Vietnamese—are silenced, misrepresented, and dehumanized, reduced to being props in narratives about white guys.

In Heart of Darkness, the central character travels up the Congo River in search of a white trader who is worshiped by the locals. In Apocalypse Now, the protagonist heads upriver in Vietnam during the Vietnam War to capture a white colonel who has gone mad—and who is worshiped by the locals. Taking the mickey out of this premise, The Ridiculous Darkness, has German military officer Sgt. Pellner and enlisted man Stefan motoring up a river in Afghanistan in search of an officer who has murdered two soldiers. That river is identified as the Hindu Kush, which is, of course, a mountain range. (Pellner vehemently denies this: “I was there!”)

Let me get my main criticism of The Ridiculous Darkness out of the way right off the top: thematically, it repeats itself. On their journey, Pellner and Stefan encounter a number of other characters, including a group of coltan miners. (Coltan is an ore used in the manufacture of electronic products.) The miners are played by actors with disabilities, who argue that they have a right to be on the stage and to define themselves. Later, Pellner and Stefan meet a proselytizing Christian minister who is proud of having scrubbed the Muslim faith out of his flock. The play also makes the point that the imprisonment of Japanese Canadians during WWII was a gross violation of their rights.

Okay. I get it. Colonialism is bad. Denying the humanity of others is desructive. This analysis is valid. It’s also familiar. And, in The Ridiculous Darkness, it doesn’t go anywhere new or surprising. My companion got so fed up with the obviousness of the play’s politics that he left at intermission.

But I stayed and I’m glad I did. Because, even though the ideas in The Ridiculous Darkness are self-evident, the myriad ways in which this production embodies that content are audacious. I don’t want to give away too many of the surprises, but allow me one example. Six actors perform most of the text in The Ridiculous Darkness, but there is also a marching band that arrives out of nowhere, its players in shiny bright-red hats tooting and drumming. It’s a phenomenal moment. Later on, another, younger crew materializes. I was so astonished that I believe I said “Jesus Christ!” in my outside voice.

There are lots of other clever things, too. Under the co-direction of Marisa Emma Smith and Nyla Carpentier, the six core actors swap out the roles of Pellner and Stefan, simultaneously emphasizing the unreliability of their narration and celebrating the multiplicity of interpretation. And the directors use the space in the Annex extremely well: actors race about on the wraparound balcony; they even make their presence felt beneath the bleachers.

Shizuka Kai’s physical design is fantastic. In my favourite visual moment, Pellner and Stefan encounter a peddler who is canoeing down the river. Kai gives the peddler a big cardboard canoe, which is suspended on straps over his shoulders, he wears a little sailor’s cap that also seems to be made out of cardboard, and he paddles in front of a big, folding cardboard screen on which the jungle landscape is casually and elegantly rendered in quick, black brushstrokes. This combination of playfulness and stylishness—the evening also features blow-up palm trees—is one of the great pleasures of the evening.

Speaking of visual art, you might want to try approaching the whole evening as you would a trip to a gallery: there’s virtually no narrative momentum, tension, or pace in The Ridiculous Darkness; I was happiest when I accepted that and allowed myself to meditate on my visual and visceral experiences.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. As of this show, I have joined the Amanda Sum fan club. Again and again, she hits just the right tone of comic understatement. Arnold, who adapted the script, also appears in it and both he and Munish Sharma know just how to send up their characters while sincerely inhabiting them. The work from Miranda Edwards and Emilie Leclerc is more straightforward but strong nonetheless, while Clint Andrew is clearly in an earlier stage in his development as an actor: his performance is fine, but he’s still working on base-level presence and believability.

When I got home from The Ridiculous Darkness, my roommate asked me if I’d recommend it. The answer is yes—if you’re content to revel in its form and in its genuine, moving inclusivity.

THE RIDICULOUS DARKNESS Adapted by Daniel Arnold from Wolfram Lotz’s radio play, which was translated by Daniel Brunet and adapted from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which was, in turn, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Directed by Marisa Emma Smith and Nyla Carpentier. Produced by Alley Theatre in partnership with Neworld Theatre at the Annex on Wednesday, November 15. Continues until November 19.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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