Last week I saw Green Thumb Theatre's revival of their hit 2005 production of RAGE by Michele Riml, winner of two Jessie Awards (for Best New Play and Best Production). As someone who spent a number of years working with Toronto's Young People's Theatre, I was looking forward to seeing this show, albeit with some trepidation once I had heard the premise. In this two-hander, a troubled male high school student meets with a female guidance counsellor to discuss his behavioural problems and potential expelling from school. They talk about various heady matters around the key theme of violence vs. non-violence including the works of Hitler, the Columbine killers, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Then the boy pulls out a gun and demands that the counsellor kill him or he will kill her. High-stakes drama indeed, and the two actors who originated and are reviving these roles perform them very well. The tension is unrelenting throughout the second half of this 70 minute show as the boy, "Rage" [real name Raymond], terrorizes the counsellor. The ending feels inevitable but is shocking nonetheless - violence breeds violence and all that.
I had a very mixed response to this production. I greatly valued the work of David Beazley and Leslie Jones [the most moving moment for me was seeing how hard the two actors clutched each other's hands at curtain call] and could see that the playwright's intentions were to provoke young audiences who are generally numbed by the amount of dramatized violence they see on TV and in movies. It's true that the live presence of theatre makes a violent encounter more difficult to bear and this may be an important way to get young people to address this issue. But I'm not sure. What kept coming back to me after the show was the old 60's slogan "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem". This play wants to be part of the solution, clearly, yet as soon as the gun is pulled out of Rage's backpack, for me the play changes its course and becomes part of the problem. I don't care to see women terrorized and victimized by violent men in the news, on TV or in films. Why would I want to see it onstage? The fact is, I don't, nor do I think it does young people much good to use violence to talk about violence. Can't we do better than this?
I couldn't help but notice that playwright Dennis Foon was in the audience the night I was there. Foon is almost entirely responsible for the shift in children's theatre in Canada in the 1980's away from safe adaptations of fairy tales or morality plays for kids and toward realistic dramatizations of issues like bullying and divorce that directly affect young people. I wonder if this play RAGE is the logical outcome of such a shift, or a perversion of it? For me, the literalness of the play, played out in real time, is its downfall. The theatre is built on metaphor. When you pull out a gun, it's just a gun, a killing machine that shuts down debate, empathy, hope. I long for a theatre that engages me (and, more crucially, young people) through metaphors that lift and transcend to become glimpses of the solution, not a theatre trapped in the hopelessness of the problem, as this play is.