A review of the piece of documentary theatre that challenges ideas of intelligence and what makes a life worthwhile
By Mickal Aranha
Acclaimed Canadian playwright Judith Thompson turned once again to documentary theatre following the success of “Body and Soul” and “The Grace Project: Sick!” Thompson both wrote and directed RARE, which premiered at the Tarragon Main Stage on July 5th as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival.
Working tirelessly with her nine co-creators – artists who all have Down syndrome – Thompson creates a beautiful tapestry of real-life stories that convey what it’s like to live with the condition. A play that could easily have come off as stiffly politically correct is instead moving enough to challenge ideas of intelligence and what makes a life worthwhile.
The production is made up of a number of first-person confessions, including stories about experiencing the loss of a loved one, rejection from peers, substance abuse in the family, as well as the frustration and anger that comes with living with Down syndrome in our society.
There are also stories of yearning: Krystal Nausbaum wants to be a mother someday, Michael Liu worries about keeping his job since working makes him feel like a man and Dylan Livaja wants to get into theater school. When words fail, the actors turn to art. Suzanne Love’s contemporary dance performance and Nicholas Herd’s dramatic rendition of the poem, Tiger, by William Blake are powerful.
While the acting on stage isn’t perfect, the production is an authentic expression of talent that allows the audience to get to know the actors as individuals. Nicholas Herd is a standout, providing comedic relief as well as emotional depth. Nada Mayla’s performance is charming and compelling. We learn that she loves her homeland, Lebanon, and that she is troubled by the injustices that plague the Middle East. She speaks English, Lebanese, Greek, French, and Italian and tells us she likes chocolate ice cream in all five languages.
Aside from breaking through common preconceptions about Down syndrome, the play is successful for the same reason any play is successful: it’s able to turn the mirror on the audience. Do we allow our perceived weaknesses, imagined or real, define us? Who decides what we are worth and what our limits are?
The play ends with Krystal Nausbaum’s plea to pregnant mothers. She urges them not to abort fetuses that have been determined to have Down syndrome through prenatal testing. The abortion rate for fetuses with the syndrome is staggering at over 95 per cent.
Critics may perceive Nausbaum’s plea as emotionally manipulative – and this may be true. Those who are fiercely pro-choice may have a moment of disquiet, but will likely submit to the fact that this is a rare chance for the actors to voice their opinion about an issue that is more than an abstract ethical question; it’s one that is deeply personal.
RARE’s countless standing ovations and spot in “Best of Fringe” are well deserved. The play is an inspiring, uplifting, funny, and emotional glimpse into the lives of young adults affected by a condition that is often misunderstood.