When Stéphanie Turple first wrote Un-Countried she, like many of us, was still laughing off the idea of a Donald Trump presidency. Now, making its world premiere at the 2017 undercurrents Theatre Festival, Theatre 4.669’s production must contend with the fact that, given current political realities, the issues and messages within the piece now carry a lot more immediacy and relevance than they perhaps ever expected. Un-Countried is a well-constructed piece of drama (under the competent and watchful eye of director Kevin Orr) that, at its core, shows us that those who do not learn from history are only bound to repeat it.
It’s 1989 at a border crossing in East Berlin and two (sort-of) unsuspecting guards are about to have their lives drastically altered due to a “monumental bureaucratic blunder”. Set in the moments directly before and after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Un-Countried explores the way in which individuals, given their circumstances, come to place value on steadfast morals and/or self-preservation (or even the ethics of using self-preservation as self defense). Another facet is carved into the interactions between the two guards and the friction between the young pup and the seasoned veteran (reflective of the constant battle between millennials and baby boomers perhaps). While it might be set in the historic past, the contemporary relevance in this piece is what encourages both a questioning of inner (and societal) values and also empathy (while still remaining critical) for those you might feel you are diametrically opposed to.
The heavy use of realism may seem like an odd choice to showcase here at undercurrents (a festival with the tagline, “theatre below the mainstream”), but it’s so well-executed, especially given the added significance of the subtext, that the stage becomes more like a Viewmaster where the audience is not only looking into the (not-so-distant) past but also seeing a possible future. As my colleague Ian Huffam points out, to see it staged in a more abstract way might make it seem pretentious or perhaps a little too ‘on the nose’. In its current iteration the spectator is confronted with the uncomfortable idea that history might already be starting to repeat itself in certain parts of the world.
Un-Countried is about more than just a wall, however. At its heart it shows us two individuals trying to navigate the tumultuous political times to little or no satisfaction. The veteran, played by Michael Hanrahan, is long embittered having swapped coats on more than one occasion as a means of survival (and if you are familiar with the era you will realize this means he’s been through the German Democratic Republic and the Nazis before that). The young officer (played by Jon Dickey), on the other hand, is on his very first day of border patrol and has never known anything but the wall being in his life which has made him unwavering in his ideals surrounding duty and nationalist loyalty. The impassioned debates between the two inspire questions like: how far are we willing to go to defend our morals; what does loyalty to one’s country mean in a constant shift of ideological and political regimes; and finally, to what extent are we willing to recognize the desire for self-preservation as being an acceptable method of self defense?
In what seems like a timeless war waged between the old and the young, Turple shows us the inherent flaws in the logic on both sides and rather suggests that a lack of empathy and proper listening often gives way to the miscommunications and misunderstandings that divide us. That being said: there’s always common ground to act as a uniting force and even though both men are inextricably changed post-Wall and, yet, still philosophically opposed, they both find new purpose in the small rescue dog Lich.
Before concluding, I would like to briefly mention the acting which, I think for the most part, is very strong. Hanrahan is a powerful force on stage as the cynical veteran who’s trying to figure out his place as a citizen while Germany’s political landscape crumbles around him. Hanrahan’s performance is strong and blustery, yet incredibly vulnerable as the character comes to acknowledge his failures as a husband and an army officer. Playing the ‘new kid on the block’ is Jon Dickey who brings such a refreshing energy on stage that it really is a joy to watch him perform. The two bounce off one another beautifully and their chemistry on stage is one of the strongest elements in this production. I could have done without the “audience members” becoming refugees, though, as it feels as though it was a choice that was made in the name of pure functionality (i.e. to change over the set) as opposed to actually adding and/or strengthening any particular creative element to the show.
Un-Countried, in my opinion, is one of the better constructed texts and creative themes at this year’s undercurrents Festival. Though it may not push any boundaries stylistically/aesthetically, the serendipitous and contemporaneous nature of the text is certainly too good to pass up. You only have two more chances to check it out and I don’t recommend missing it!