By Joyce McMillan
The effort to forge a link of imagination and understanding between the comfortable lives still lived by most affluent Westerners and the horrors we see daily on our television screens has been one of the central themes of the 2006 Fringe; and nowhere more so than in the latest show from Volcano Theatre of Toronto. Flawed, risky, but fascinatingly honest in its approach to the subject, Michael Redhill’s Goodness tells the story of a Toronto- based Jewish playwright called Michael ( it’s Redhill himself, beautifully played by Gord Rand) who reacts to a messy divorce by setting off in search of the Polish roots of his own mother’s family, slaughtered in the Holocaust. He wants an answer to the key question underlying all atrocities; why do good people rush to do evil? And although his visit to Poland yields nothing, he finds himself sidetracked in London by a strange encounter with Althea, a survivor of a recent outbreak of genocidal slaughter, somewhere in Africa.
The story that emerges, as Althea begins to tell her tale, is in many ways a bit of a mess. Michael is constantly, comically distracted by his weakness for pretty gentile women, represented in Althea’s story by Julia Todd, the daughter of a populist white leader who may have incited genocide. As a playwright, he toys regularly and sometimes irritatingly with the idea that he can vary the story; and a central episode involving the trial for genocide of Julia’s father, who may or may not be faking dementia, repeats itself at least once too often.
For all that, though, this complex piece of fractured storytelling has some terrific redeeming qualities, including a series of beautifully orchestrated performances from its six-strong cast, an inspired, light-touch use of traditional sung laments from Africa and central Europe, and an eloquent, free- flowing abstract production by Ross Manson. Above all, the show avoids the kind of easy cynicism that would have left Michael, as the classic na´ve liberal hero, silenced by horror.
He remains articulate to the end, still defending his position with energy and wit; and when the cast turn to the audience with a final challenging stare that asks how we would respond in the kind of situation that leads to genocide, it’s a mark of this show’s courage and its resistance to fashionable pessimism, that it leaves the question feeling genuinely open.