Review – ‘Counter Offence’: Inviting an Intersectional Dialogue about Power

Rahul Varma's play on race, gender, culture and class receives a timely revival at the Segal Centre

Michael Briganti, Amir Sám Nakhjavani, and Arun Varma in Counter Offence
Photo credit: Svetla Atanasova

If there’s one thing Teesri Duniya Theatre excels at, it’s presenting politically engaged plays that make space for a multitude of cross-cultural perspectives. Never one to bash you over the head with a one-sided message, this company has a long history of tackling complex issues through open discussion and turning the theatre into a site for active listening.

Counter Offence is no exception. Since its original production in 1996, playwright Rahul Varma and dramaturge Deborah Forde have updated the script to be even more relevant in Quebec today. Twenty-five years later, the story is as poignant as ever, particularly in light of Law 21 and the ongoing violence and discrimination faced by minorities, especially Muslim and Indigenous women.

The story follows Shapoor (Amir Sám Nakhjavani), an Iranian man, who is arrested for beating his Muslim wife and sponsor, Shazia (Alida Esmail). When the white police officer (Davide Chiazzese) who arrests him mutters ethnic slurs, Shapoor’s friend and business partner Moolchand (Arun Varma), a well-versed anti-racist activist, tries to get Shapoor’s arrest dismissed as racial profiling. Black activist Clarinda Keith (Maureen Adelson) comes to Shazia’s aid in filing for a restraining order and divorce, while her parents (Minoo Gundevia, Amena Ahmad) try their best to look out for her in a foreign country. Meanwhile, the president of the police brotherhood (Michael Briganti) fights to keep an inquiry from hurting his image. 

Michael Briganti (in shadow), Arun Varma, Amir Sám Nakhjavani,
and Minoo Gundevia, Amena Ahmad (in back)
Photo credit: Svetla Atanasova

Counter Offence contains a complex matrix of themes, all at the intersection of race, gender, culture and class. For example, the script interweaves many layers of the immigrant experience. The characters grapple with claiming the power to effect change in their chosen home, while facing xenophobes’ discrimination and fear. Families become complex networks of power, when family members depend entirely on each other for immigration status. The diverse cast demonstrates each character’s struggle with racial, cultural, and gender identity as always relative to and positioned against the Other. Each character pulls us into their unique process of reckoning with the body, the family, and the society which they call home.

Varma’s script also raises many questions about violence. How do cultural and institutional power structures repress, redirect, or requite violent acts? Are words and micro-aggressions just as harmful as the blows that leave a mark? How can we break cultural and intergenerational cycles of abuse and trauma, rather than internalize them? To what extent should we forgive those who abuse us? Is it fair to use someone’s personal suffering as a pawn to fight systemic issues? Without dismissing the gravity of violence, Counter Offence presents violence as a symptom of deeper, widespread issues in our society that need healing. 

One reason this play is extremely relevant today is its various examples of mediation. As we see well-intentioned characters take on others’ problems as their own, or speaking on each others’ behalf, we question the ethics of defending or protecting people who don’t want to be helped. On one hand, this reveals the potentially manipulative and self-serving side of activism on behalf of minorities. On the other hand, we are reminded of the heartbreaking reality that victims often go back to their abusers, despite their loved ones trying to help them find their way out.

Amir Sám Nakhjavani, Alida Esmail, D. Chiazzese (in back)
Photo credit: Svetla Atanasova

Accomplished set and lighting designer Zoe Roux, and assistant Sandrina Sparagna, draw you into an abstract world of strategy. The stage resembles a board game, with square tiles around the perimeter of the stage, and red chairs positioned like pawns on certain squares. With eight performers and six chairs, a subtle game of Musical Chairs seems to represent a society with limited places for people. Like a Rubik’s Cube, the tiles are reconfigurable, and seamlessly become the walls closing in or the floor being pulled out from underneath one’s feet. 

The saturated set is bright red and turquoise, with various coloured lights piercing the smoke that slow-dances through the air; yet it remains a cold, barren, and institutional environment. This parallels the story’s contrasting and equally poignant layers: the lived, emotional experiences and relationships, superimposed with the bureaucratic technicalities and politically-correct, academic terminology. 

Director Arianna Bardesono has done amazing work with each and every performer to bring grounded, three-dimensional, heart-wrenchingly human performances of Varma’s characters. She also masterfully creates powerful choreographic moments onstage. Using the ensemble’s movement, she builds tension and snaps it back, she rewinds and slows down time without it looking gimmicky, and places characters in relation to each other to materialize unseen power structures. Troy Slocum’s synthetic sound design reverberates through these powerful moments, heightening the intensity for performers and audience alike. 

In short, Counter Offence is a powerful play about power, its subtle manifestations and manipulations, at the intersection of identities. Unsurprisingly, the production is expertly executed, and the story remains just as relevant as ever.

Teesri Duniya Theatre presents Counter Offence at The Segal Centre for Performance Arts Studio until March 15th, 2020*
Tickets ($15): | 514.739.7944

*Following the Quebec of Government’s orders with regards to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and considering audiences’ safety and well-being, Teesri Duniya’s Counter Offence will be suspended as of March 16, 2020 until further notice.

Celine Cardineau

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