Corpus: A Step in the Right Direction

Brianna McFarlane

Though quite the macabre subject matter, studies in genocide, specifically the Holocaust, is a field with no shortage of academics or literature pertaining to it; and this is exactly where playwright Darrah Teitel begins her newest play Corpus. When a young academic, under the shadow of her prestigious supervisor, stumbles upon information that, if published, could sky-rocket her career she becomes blinded towards facts and how this information could affect the lives of other people including those around her. While I wasn’t originally moved by the play’s synopsis, the production itself, directed by Bronwyn Steinberg at Arts Court Theatre, is certainly not what I expected and is a strong offering from the Counterpoint Players.

Corpus, more specifically, is a story about a scholar named Megan who is desperately trying to break new ground in the field of genocide revisionism through her doctoral thesis revolving around her online conversations with surviving former Nazis. When her online date, a German hacker and self proclaimed “fan” named Heinrich, suddenly drops the story of her life into her lap, namely hard proof that a romantic relationship existed between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi existed, Megan eagerly seizes this career defining opportunity. However, her academic success comes at a price and she soon realizes that what she discovered only scratches the surface of the truth of the matter. A play about the dangers of becoming too invested in new narratives about historic events, Corpus shows us that sometimes history is better left to rest.

The script itself is fairly strong being not quite a memory play, or a historical drama, or even a romantic “dramedy”. Yet it is the mixture of all of these components that make it work as a unified piece. I appreciate the elements of fantasy within the text, specifically the use of the spirit who haunts elderly Eva Wolfe and spurs the flashbacks of her story; and the pseudo-press conferences that take place in Megan’s mind, made slightly more fabulous thanks to lighting by Leeza Gulliver, add some much needed silliness to balance out the more sombre material.

Above all, though it is a piece that revolves around issues of racism, anti-Semitism, and other-ing, I thoroughly enjoyed the love story between Megan and Heinrich. It is completely appropriate and relevant to contemporary society where most twenty-somethings try their hand at online dating at one point or another. The relationship between the two characters is believable and never becomes overly sentimental or cliché. Simply put, it is a refreshing look at how people today try to build meaningful relationships in a digital society that often seems far removed from itself.

Patrice-Ann Forbes does an excellent job with the set design (as well as props and costumes) which is both eye-catching and compelling. Configured in the alley-way style, the floor is quite literally laid out like a map with the borders making up Poland at one end of the playing space and Ontario at the other. The four corners of the stage are pinned down by various set pieces (two computer desks and a sofa; an arm chair with a small side table; and a long standing mirror paired with a coat rack), yet the space never at any point feels cluttered or weighed down.

At each end of the alley-way there is a large hanging screen which is used for both projected images as well as for the live-feeds of the multiple conversations had over web-camera. Designed by Wes Kline, who is also responsible for the adept sound design, the web-cams add a nice texture and depth to the piece that a purely textual reading of the script would never be able to provide. These videos are perhaps the most effective when there are scenes happening on opposite ends of the stage as heads are not forced so much to swivel to and fro as though attending a tennis match. Rather, the live video feeds serve to bring the actors together in the scene no matter what end of the stage you’re watching.

Furthermore, the videos are an integral aspect to Megan and Heinrich’s relationship and help to perfectly express the realities of online dating: the excitement of the camera; the awkwardness of seeing someone face to face for the first time; and the frustration at feeling so close to someone, yet being so far away from them in actuality. Even further, without the videos the scenes with these two characters would have been much weaker from a directorial standpoint as the sight-lines prove slightly problematic when the two characters are seated at their respective computers on the same side of the stage (the problem being that the majority of the audience only sees Heinrich’s back and Megan seems to be blocked by the giant computer monitor). This problem is easily solved, however, by projecting the videos high above the playing space and as such the audience is treated to the nuanced facial expressions and reactions of the actors.

Speaking of which, the performances in this piece can only be described as well-rounded and solid. Director Bronwyn Steinberg has cast quite well in this instance and her actors play off one another marvellously. Despite starting out with a shaky accent, Colleen Sutton, playing young Eva Reiniger, holds her own against Eric Craig, playing Eli Kaplan, who is very strong and the tension between the two is palpable. Craig, himself, has the best accent of the bunch and gives excellent variety as he transitions from the nasty spirit who haunts Eva towards the end of her life, to the wildly (and understandably) on-edge Jewish inmate summoned by SS officer Reiniger to teach his German wife Polish, and finally to the gentle old man who has made peace with his past.

Sascha Cole and Daniel Sadavoy, playing Megan and Heinrich respectively, are equally engaging in their fully realized characters. Cole’s motivations and struggles are nearly always apparent and by the end of the piece her character undergoes a complete change from who she was at the beginning. Sadavoy has great presence especially on camera. His face, most notably his eyebrows, is incredibly expressive and creates depth within a character whose movement on stage is rather limited. Laurie Fyffe as Eva Wolfe has some nice moments with Craig on stage, particularly when attempting to retell her story to Megan via web-cam while simultaneously fighting the outward manifestation of her inner demons; and John Koensgen serves well as shady professor and PhD supervisor Homer.

Overall, this is certainly a world premier that playwright Teitel can be proud of. Apart from a few problematic sightlines (though arguably bound to happen given the stage configuration-so be mindful of where you sit!) Steinberg delivers another substantial production to the forefront of Ottawa theatre. During her opening night speech, Steinberg introduced Corpus as being the pilot model for the upcoming TACTICS (Theatre Artists’ Co-operative: The Independent Collective Series) season starting this November. If this particular production is any indication, it is certainly a step in the right direction for the series and it will be interesting to see what each of the four companies chosen for TACTICS’ inaugural season (Evolution Theatre, Lisa Jeans, May Can Theatre, and Dead Unicorn Ink) will deliver in the 2014-2015 year.

Corpus written by Darrah Teitel

Presented by Counterpoint Players

Arts Court Theatre May 1-10

Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg

Starring: Sascha Cole, Eric Craig, Laurie Fyffe, John Koensgen, Daniel Sadavoy and Colleen Sutton

Production & Design team: Nicolas Alain, Sean Green, Patrice-Ann Forbes, Leeza Gulliver and Wes Kline