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If the coherence of The Aeneid ebbs and flows, there are enough powerful moments to make its journey worthwhile.

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Aeneid
Written by
Olivier Kemeid and translated by Maureen Labonté
Directed by
Keira Loughran
Actors
Gareth Potter
Venue
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Tuesday, October 04, 2016

From its first shocking scene, Olivier Kemeid's The Aeneid will pull your trigger, hard – whoever you are, wherever you are from.

A street preacher (a frenzied Mike Nadajewski) tears through a crowd of dancers at a disco warning them to flee the city, that violence and devastation is coming. Naturally, no one listens until a cloud of smoke begins to fill the room.

Your mind may fly to the terrified revellers at the Movida nightclub in Kuala Lumpur last month, or perhaps the dancers at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando the month before, or maybe the concertgoers at the Bataclan theatre in Paris less than a year ago.

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Quebec playwright Kemeid's play, now having its English-language debut at the Stratford Festival, may have premiered almost a decade ago and inspired by a poem over two thousands years old, but its tale of terror and exile feels almost too timely.

Virgil's epic of the same name tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who wandered after the fall of his city until he reached the shores of Italy and settled there – the mythical beginning of ancient Roman.

In his play, Kemeid keeps the names of the characters from Virgil – but strips out the names of the places. Here, Aeneas (Gareth Potter), his wife Creusa (Monice Peter) and their son Ascanius (Malakai Magassouba) are refugees fleeing a nameless country and heading toward another nameless one; either could stand in for ours, or both. The playwright has repurposed what was created as a national epic for postnational purposes – and the multicultural cast in director Keira Loughran's production helps create the idea that the action is happening anywhere and everywhere.

Along his journey, Aeneas and his fellow refugees occasionally seem entirely in our time – dealing with bureaucratic immigration officials or washing up on the beach at a vacation resort.

"You're refugees, not beggars, right?" asks the entertainment director at one resort that Aeneas and his countrymen find less than all-inclusive. "You weren't poor before?"

There's a fair amount of humour in Kemeid's play – which sees the cast constantly shifting from role to role, with only a suitably stoic Potter anchoring it as Aeneas. Some of the satire is a little too on the nose, or at least seems so in Maureen Labonté's otherwise seamless translation into English.

This Aeneid's power instead comes in the emotional wrecking balls Kemeid regularly sends careening across the stage to knock the breath out of you.

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An early one: Shortly after losing his wife on his journey, Aeneas finds temporary safe harbour amid a group of fellow countryman. While he is napping in this makeshift refugee camp, a distraught woman picks up Aeneas' son – and won't let go, believing him to be or wishing him to be her own lost baby.

That's hard enough to watch – but it is her husband's gentle plea to Aeneas to please let her pretend for a few hours that is truly wrenching; Rodrigo Beilfuss's performance here – straightforward, earnest – flattened me with its unspoken pain.

Joanna Yu's sculptural set, a mix of stones and sheets and riot shields, becomes a series of boats, buildings and beaches along our hero's journey – lighting designer Itai Erdal and sound designer Debashis Sinha respective 'scapes sweeping us from place to place; suggestive, but never specific.

Loughran's production is filled with movement as poetic as the text itself, an effective dreamscape. At one point, she has our hero refugees transform into the sea, washing on and off the stage of the Studio Theatre – the "waves" of humanity we hear are "swamping" Europe in the poorly or provocatively chosen words of some, turned literal.

This Aeneid's attempts to marry the mythical past with modern concerns are not always entirely successful, however– with vestiges of Virgil sometimes pulling Kemeid's characters in strange directions.

When Aeneas finds temporary safe harbour with a woman named Elissa (Lanise Antoine Shelley), for instance, his return to his quest to find a specific parcel of land does not make much sense in the nebulous world of the play.

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Aeneas's subsequent trip to the underworld to visit his father does however bring one of the most haunting scenes – with Michael Spencer-Davies delivering a recitation of the refugees of the world that has the force of an incantation, amid a swaying cemetery of dead that chillingly echoes the life-filled dance of the first moments of the play.

This superb scene will stick with me – even though the next one jumped forward disorientingly, telling the audience nothing about how Aeneas or his friend Achates (Saamer Usmani) escaped the underworld.

If the coherence of Kemeid's play ebbs and flows, there are enough powerful moments to make its journey worthwhile. Kemeid is an increasingly major force in Quebec theatre, and was just announced as the next artistic director of Montreal's influential Théâtre de Quat'Sous. That theatre was once run by Wajdi Mouawad, the powerful writer whose footsteps Kemeid and other second-generation Quebecois playwrights such as Mireille Tawfik and Mani Soleymanlou are following in. I look forward to seeing more of this work in English translation.

The Aeneid continues at Stratford's Studio Theatre to Oct. 4 (stratfordfestival.ca).

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