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The Monument: a stark reminder of Rwanda’s tragedy

3.5 out of 4 stars

There's a scene near the end of The Monument, Colleen Wagner's searing 1995 drama about wartime atrocities, when a young soldier is forced to remember in detail the 23 women he has raped and murdered. "I killed a girl named Mini. Fifteen. She had a sun-burned face," he recalls. "A girl named Sara. She wore glasses. She was short and chubby… Eva. She was a swimmer in training for the Olympics.…"

The list goes on and, as it does, the anonymous, half-rotten corpses in a mass grave begin to take on names and, however rudimentary, identities. It's an act of resurrection and reclamation that lies at the heart of Wagner's Governor-General's Award-winning play. And it becomes the resonant centrepiece of the touring production by Rwanda's ISÔKO Theatre, which closes Harbourfront Centre's World Stage season.

As the soldier, Stetko (Jean Paul Uwayezu), recollects his victims, he draws their personal effects from amid the exhumed bodies – a bracelet, some pimple cream, a crucifix, a bra. Each item is snatched away in turn by a pair of female phantoms (Solange Liza Umuhire and Ruth Nirere) clad in dresses the colour of dried blood. We're in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. But we're also in Bosnia, the original setting of Wagner's play, and these personal items – the most poignant touch in director Jennifer H. Capraru's stark staging – may also remind you of the ones that were raked from the ashes of the Nazi ovens.

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Wagner's play begins with suggestions of a revenge fantasy. Stetko, about to be executed for his war crimes, is offered a reprieve by a mysterious older woman named Mejra (Jaqueline Umubyeyi). The catch is that he must obey her for the rest of his life.

After slicing off one of his ears and nearly beating him to a pulp, Mejra turns Stetko into her slave and torments him with mind games concerning the fate of his virgin girlfriend. But it turns out she desires something more than vengeance – it's that famous casualty of wartime, the truth.

Leaving aside the characters' east European names, it would be easy to believe The Monument was originally written about the systematic rape that occurred during the Rwandan genocide, with Stetko as a Hutu fighter and his victims as minority Tutsi. The play's truth-and-reconciliation theme also jibes with Rwanda's postwar policies. Capraru, a Canadian, obviously recognized these parallels when she founded ISÔKO a few years ago in Kigali. Her production originated there and has toured Rwanda prior to its North American debut at World Stage.

The dialogue – performed in Kinyarwanda, with English surtitles – stays faithful to Wagner's text, but the trappings are entirely East African. The show, in Harbourfront's flexible Brigantine Room, is presented as intimately as a village storytelling, with the audience seated in a circle around the candlelit playing space. The Rwandan cast members are musicians as well, and there is a cappella singing and drumming during scene transitions. The drums also furnish the few sound effects – Stetko's beating, a gunshot – while Sandra Marcroft's subtle lighting does most of the scene-setting.

The acting is spare and intense. Stetko is Wagner's variation on the banality-of-evil theme – he's the Devil as the boy next door – and the lean, handsome Uwayezu brings out the confused and immature kid under his soldier's swagger. It's Umubyeyi who most impresses, however. Her Mejra is a fierce enigma for much of the play, regarding Stetko with cold eyes. When at last she unfetters her grief, like a modern Andromache, it's heart-rending.

Capraru – who is also artistic director of Toronto's Theatre Asylum – favours a stylized approach that de-emphasizes the play's violence and physicality. Instead, we often feel like we are watching an ancient, cathartic ritual. That was probably the best way to offer the play to Rwandan audiences for whom the subject matter alone is bound to be painful. For Canadian theatregoers willing to put aside expectations of gritty realism, it's a chance to re-appreciate Wagner's regrettably timeless tale from a fresh perspective.

The Monument

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  • Written by Colleen Wagner
  • Directed by Jennifer H. Capraru
  • Starring Jaqueline Umubyeyi, Jean Paul Uwayezu, Ruth Nirere and Solange Liza Umuhire
  • Produced by ISÔKO Theatre and presented by World Stage
  • At Harbourfront Centre in Toronto

The Monument runs until Sunday.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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