The man who sits tied to a wooden chair under a harsh light speaks the words of the doomed, the cocksure talk of one who boasts of his crimes to suppress his own fear. He sits on the third tier of a wooden platform, presented to us, like a sacrifice. He is surrounded by 23 thickly braided ropes hanging in the darkness. “I raped 23 girls. . .I don’t care for the world much . . . I didn’t mind killing . . . I don’t know why.”
This is Stetko. In the original productions of Colleen Wagner’s 1995 play The Monument, he was a universal soldier-rapist, inspired by the playwright’s shock and outrage at the many civil wars, the ethnic-cleansing and the rape and killing of women and girls at the hands of armed combatants.
Restaged by director Jani Lauzon in the context of the thousands of Canadian missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, The Monument takes on a new immediacy and urgency and opens up a space for accountability, a resurrection of the forgotten and nameless victims and an opportunity for reconciliation.
In this production Stetko refers to himself as a gang member. After a few minutes of his manic confessional, a figure emerges from the shadows. This is Merja, dressed like the female prison camp commandant in Lina Wertmueller’s Seven Beauties. Stetko takes her for his executioner. But, Merja announces, “I’m your saviour. You have to do everything I say, you must obey me for the rest of your life.”
From this point on the two characters inhabit a conceptual space, in which both must travel to a new understanding of what kind of healing, if any, is possible. Tamara Podemski’s Merja is fierce; she seeks revenge, harm, power over Stetko, who becomes her slave and is treated like a dog, humiliated and tortured with reports of his own girlfriend’s rape and murder. Augusto Bitter’s Stetko learns abasement, is offered a rabbit to give him something to care for until it is cruelly removed. He faces his own crimes: “It’s easy to hate and it’s easy to kill if you hate enough,” he says
Merja finds that none of this assuages her pain; she takes Stetko, whom she calls Stinko, to the forest to unearth his victims, the ropes are lowered, festooned with red ribbons to represent the brutality of their deaths.
The language of the play is not profound and Stetko’s repeated references to obeying a soldier’s orders don’t make sense in the new context, but it is not the text that makes Monument worth seeing. The play works on a symbolic level, asking the question if these missing and murdered women could speak what would they say? Podemski’s powerful performance gives the answer: demand their humanity and be recognized for the daughters, mothers, sisters that they were — loved and cherished and put in harm’s way through no fault of their own.
By Colleen Wagner
Directed by Jani Lauzon
Set designed by Elahe Marjovi
Lighting design by Louise Guinand
At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until April 1
Photo of Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter by Joseph Michael