Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ottawa Fringe Triple Header (Part 1/3)

Retour a Pripyat

I sometimes get sideways looks when I mention the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat. For those of you not in the know, it was a city of 50 000 people - all evacuated in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Apparently, I talk about that place "like it's common knowledge". For what it's worth, Pripyat is well-traveled ground for gamers, who have made expeditions in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (the missions "All Ghillied Up" and "One Shot, One Kill"), as well as the STALKER series (Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Pripyat). After all of these virtual outings, I guess you could say I've been left with a kind of morbid fascination with the place. To some extent, I still can't put a finger on what it is that makes Pripyat such a powerful image. I think there's a haunting, apocalyptic quality to a city without any people left in it. Like a car accident on the highway, you just can't avert your eyes.

Retour a Pripyat is, of course, in French. I didn't actually expect to understand it, but the premise drew me in. I ended up understanding about 90% of it - a pleasant surprise - so this review may not be complete. What I will try to do is give you an impression of what the show is like for someone with a high-school level French education.

In Chernobyl, a man sickened and burned by radiation rummages and scrounges amongst the wreckage. He makes his home in an abandoned house, and there he constructs for himself an imaginary family life, speaking to the discarded portraits on the dresser as though they are family. He eats potatoes every day and makes vodka from the peels; he believes it will stave off the effects of the radiation. He has arguments with his imagined wife (portrayed on-stage as a sort of ghost), who wishes that he wouldn't stay out so late (there are wolves in Pripyat).

Midway through, the original owner of the house - a shoe repairman - returns, shambling like a zombie into his former home. While he and the looter initially distrust each other, they eventually come to an understanding. He relates the story of how he came to Pripyat, only to have his life fall apart after the accident forced him to leave. The imaginary wife, conjured from the abandoned pictures, is revealed to be his. Flashbacks ensue, showing us a time of brief happiness and contentment, before the meltdown. Then, it's back to tragedy: we learn that the "child on the way" that the intruder imagined in the opening minutes of the show also belonged to the shoe repairman. The child died before it was even a year old.

It's a bleak show, and the wife/ghost punctuates the moments between scenes with real-life quotes from "Liquidateurs", the term used to apply to those people who received extreme doses of radiation during the accident and subsequent cleanup. A number, the program reminds us, that remains inexact to this very day. The set design is perfect: not too much, not too little. The bits of disused furniture are festooned with the plants that have begun to retake the city in the humanity's absence. Candles are always burning - of course there's no electricity to run the lights!

And there you have it. Retour a Pripyat: watching broken lives through the broken window that is my broken French.

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