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Theatre Reviews Review: Colleen Wagner’s The Monument is rebuilt for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Augusto Bitter as Stetko and Tamara Podemski as Mejra in The Monument.

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  • Title: The Monument
  • Written by: Colleen Wagner
  • Director: Jani Lauzon
  • Actors: Augusto Bitter and Tamara Podemski
  • Company: Factory Theatre
  • Venue: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 1, 2018

On the verge of being executed for raping and killing 23 women and girls, Stetko, an unrepentant young combatant in an unnamed conflict, is visited by a mysterious woman named Mejra.

She gives him a choice: He can either be killed, or be released on the condition that he agree to obey her every command for the rest of his life.

A play that dances on the edge of the brutally direct and the symbolic, Colleen Wagner’s Governor-General’s-Award-winning drama The Monument has had surprising staying power since its premiere in 1995.

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Set nowhere in particular, but originally produced at a time when the war in Bosnia was raging, it was at first seen by many critics as a too on-the-nose response to atrocities committed in Southeastern Europe.

But, in the intervening decades, The Monument has shown an unusual ability to acquire different resonances, explicit or implied, in new productions in Germany, Japan and Rwanda, and again in Canada. And the further we move away from the time of its creation, the more compelling critics seem to have found it.

Now, at the Factory Theatre, director Jani Lauzon takes yet another new look at the two-hander: through the lens of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Not just through costuming and conscious casting, either. About 15 small word changes in Wagner’s script allow The Monument to more easily conjure Canada and colonialism. Camp has turned into reserve, army into gang, white skin to brown skin.

There still seems to be an open war on, one with two sides, two sets of combatants – which makes an entirely realistic translation to Canada difficult. But the play itself does not exist in reality, rather in its own theatrical world that reaches beyond singular meaning even here.

The first scene remains a real stunner – Augusto Bitter’s performance as Stetko is immediately repellent, and yet you can’t take your eyes off him.

In his frank talk about his crimes against humanity, the 19-year-old’s default tone is an infuriatingly petulant one; audaciously, he seeks sympathy in between blunt provocations, portraying himself as a victim who will die without ever having had the chance to sleep with his girlfriend.

Tamara Podemski plays the older woman, whose bargain Stetko does accept – and it is initially hard for her to compete with a character so electrically evil. But her Mejra gradually grows more defined and complex as she alternates between torturing Stetko, using him as forced labour, and treating him like a human being (and even occasionally seeing him as one).

Wagner’s text is an intriguing one. There is something ritualistic or ceremonial to the whole play – as if a production of it is an ephemeral monument being built to female victims of violence.

Her writing has something in common with the works of Jean Genet, in which the oppressed try on the robes of the oppressors and are at once appalled and seduced by the power they feel. But the radical empathy at its centre conjures the more recent, wider-ranging war-torn epics of Wajdi Mouawad.

It seems paradoxical, at first, that a play on the subject of hideous crimes against women would create a space at its centre for as vivid a character as Stetko, and it is impossible to imagine anyone doing a better job of playing him than Bitter. But a play merely seeking to reiterate horror would stop with Mejra’s line: “You should look at every woman as if she were your daughter.” Instead, in The Monument, we get Stetko’s challenge, too: “Why don’t you look at every man as if he were your son?”

Lauzon’s production of this concise one-act play is gorgeously realized − the heightened physicality in the scenes segueing seamlessly into nightmare-like choreography between them. Elahe Marjovi’s set design hides moving visual surprises.

In his review of the original production of The Monument in The Globe and Mail, critic Robert Cushman criticized Wagner’s play for “treat[ing] war, and violence against women, as if they were synonymous.” Lauzon’s vision of the play reverses that equation: It treats violence against women, Indigenous women in particular, and war, as if they were synonymous. That’s a provocative interpretation – and one that really brings this homegrown play home, in all senses.

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