Review by Wes Babcock
Monstrous, created and performed by Sarah Waisvisz, tells the story of a woman’s struggle to find and inhabit a clear identity at the intersection of uncertainty about just about every aspect of her family’s diverse origins.
The problem Waisvisz’s character faces is this: when you come from everywhere and nowhere specific at the same time, and aren’t sure of your identity as a result, things can be rather confusing. It’s difficult to find a through-line to your personal narrative, you struggle with the nature and locus of your belonging in nearly every context, you don’t know what bits of yourself are central, and which can be safely left out. The play’s own struggles parallel those of its central character; but whereas there is always a living human inside the individual’s struggle, the play doesn’t collect the diverse experiences of this search for identity into something with power, cohesion, or a trajectory.
The show consists of a spiraling combination of a series of anecdotes and historical facts that inform the multiplicity of identities into which the character tries to insert and situate herself. This device often serves well those who use it as a story-telling device, provided they anchor it to a core that they can return to from their forays into the expanse of thematically relevant material. This show is all foray, and relies on the understanding that race and culture are things that define us in our own minds for its approach to engage the emotions of the audience, without providing . We see that the character is unsure of where she’s come from, we see some manifestations of this uncertain identity, along with attempts to situate it, and we know that this difficulty is a problem, but we never truly see why it matters to her.
Each individual story is treated with all the care that the conventions of theatre can muster, but they end up sitting like a pile of brightly coloured threads on a table; distinct, tangled, impossible to unite in a shape or pattern from the tangle without un-teasing and weaving them together anew.
Let me provide an example of what I mean. Taking something concrete, like the image of un foulard, and weaving the threads of separate stories together into the metaphorical scarf of the play through the words, dance, and images that exist already, and making that image central to the literal telling of this identity struggle would give the audience something to hold onto, and would enrich the heart of the production. At present the foulard is a thing mentioned as important to the identity of les Martiniquais, and as a thing that is problematic due to colonization. Instead, make the foulard personally relevant to the character, make it appear in a number of contexts, even outside the martinican stories. Make the audience care about it by making it personal.
I choose the metaphor of un foulard because its thematically relevant, has symbolic potential, and can be extended in a diverse number of ways to bridge the gap between the cultural-colonial-racial-historical part of this story, which we relate to on an intellectual level, and the individual-personal part of this story that we attempt to relate to on an emotional level.
Monstrous is by no means monstrous, but while its politics can’t be faulted, disputed or dismissed, it doesn’t do the emotional legwork necessary to bridge the gap between politics and the individual to succeed as a piece of theatre.