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Syrian refugee and playwright Ahmad Meree's play Suitcase/Adrenaline is at the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.

Peter Riddihough/Handout

  • Suitcase/Adrenaline
  • Written by Ahmad Meree
  • Director Majdi Bou-Matar
  • Actors Ahmad Meree and Nada Abusaleh
  • Company Theatre Mada
  • Venue Theatre Passe Muraille
  • City Toronto
  • Year: To Feb. 1

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Since its founding in 1968, Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille has always sought to create work that goes “beyond walls” – and, 52 years later, it is still finding new walls to go beyond.

TPM is currently presenting its first-ever show in Arabic, with English surtitles: Suitcase/Adrenaline, a double-bill of short plays from Kitchener-Waterloo’s Theatre Mada. (The company’s name, fittingly, means something close to “new horizons.”)

One of the hardest walls to tear down in theatre – and between people, in general, in multicultural Toronto – is language. Kudos to TPM for taking this linguistic leap.

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Both Suitcase and Adrenaline are written by and star Ahmad Meree, a young artist from Aleppo, Syria, who came to Canada as a refugee in 2016, co-sponsored by the shows’ director Majdi Bou-Matar.

Memories inspire refugee playwright Ahmad Meree

Suitcase is a 70-minute tragic farce about an interfaith couple who did not manage to escape the violence of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Adrenaline is a shorter, 30-minute piece that looks at the mixture of guilt, sadness and tentative hope felt by one man who, like the playwright, did escape it.

In the first play, Christian reporter Razan (Nada Abusaleh) and Muslim musician Samer (Meree) have had to leave their home with only one suitcase, and when we meet them in some sort of eerie waiting room, Razan is racking her brain trying to remember one particular item that she forgot to pack.

The married couple sit on a pair of chairs, passing the time by arguing, playing games, flirting, meditating and banging on the floor.

Samer practices his English and what he would say if he were interviewed by reporters while fleeing through Europe, and can’t help imagining a life where his charismatic soundbites help him become a famous musician; Razan, trying to ignore her husband’s foolishness, meditates angrily.

Though the tone is comic, it soon comes clear that these two have escaped Syria only by dying. And after a while, Razan and Samer finally tell each other of traumas they hid from one another in life, horrors suffered at the hands of ISIS and supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, respectively.

Before coming to Canada, Meree studied at the Higher Institute of Theatre Arts in Cairo, and one of the credits listed in his bio is a production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson, which he directed there.

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The influence of Ionesco and other playwrights of the theatre of the absurd such as Samuel Beckett (and Waiting for Godot in particular) on Suitcase is clear.

That post-Second World War artistic movement was a reaction to a world seemingly without meaning following unfathomable death and destruction, and by writing in this mode, Meree makes it clear that is not a part of history for many of the people on this planet.

The randomness of death in war is communicated powerfully in Adrenaline, in which an unnamed main character played by Meree has a New Year’s Eve dinner with objects he has set up to represent his mother, father and brother. Eventually, the man abandons this artifice to tell the story of how, when he was out getting a loaf of bread for dinner, the rest of his family was blown up by a bomb.

He’s struck by the absurdity that his father was sitting on the couch watching the news about mounting casualties of the civil war on television at the exact moment he himself became one. He imagines the number scrolling across the screen going up by one as his father died.

In Suitcase, Razan similarly reflects on the reduction of humans to numbers in news reports, remarking on one about how she and her husband were among 52 people who died in an explosion: “I feel like we’re a deck of cards."

But while Samer is angry because he didn’t “deserve” to die, Razan is more at peace with the role that chance played in their demises.

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Much of the power of these two works, which both feature a bare-bones tourable design, comes from the knowledge that their creator is not dealing with abstract ideas, but embodies the subject matter; his presence on a Canadian stage is an artistic statement in itself.

Everyone knows that old cliché in Canada – the immigrant or refugee who was a doctor in the old country now driving a taxi. But this country has also, in general, never been great at utilizing the talents of non-Anglophone artists who come here, despite the fact that you don’t need credentials to act or direct or write a play.

Theatres should do more to make productions in other languages accessible to those of us who understand English, just as they should also do more to make English-language theatre accessible to those of us who do not. It was great to hear TPM’s new artistic director Marjorie Chan say on opening night that Suitcase/Adrenaline was just the start of something.

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