Written by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade and directed by Rob Kempson. Until Jan. 29 at Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E. arcstage.com
Its premise is compelling, perhaps even provocative: Benjamin Sinclair (Nabil Traboulsi) has radicalized into a Christian zealot, weaponizing the Bible and launching theological verses like grenades on a battlefield.
He views his single mother (Deborah Drakeford) as nothing more than a heathen; his school, a cesspool of impiety. Come hell or high water, Benjamin will do anything and everything to fight secularism — and his firmly agnostic teacher (Aviva Armour-Ostroff).
But “Martyr,” the drama by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade and receiving its Canadian premiere courtesy of ARC Stage, buckles under its own ambition, failing to tackle the sweeping themes it thrusts into the audience like a bloody dagger.
These are timely issues, no question: religious extremism, adolescent isolation and, most of all, the tension between a secularist and religious state. Yet leaving them largely unexplored, as Mayenburg does in “Martyr,” makes for a frustrating 90 minutes of theatre — all the more so when director Rob Kempson’s valiant production seemingly attempts to mine the material for more than is inherently present.
The play’s fundamental flaw lies in its central character. Understandably, Benjamin isn’t likeable; making a character of his temperament “likeable” is a near impossible task.
At the very least, however, it’s crucial to feel invested in his journey. Yet there’s not much of a journey to follow. Mayenburg doesn’t provide any context.
First, how does Benjamin become so radicalized? It’s hard to believe that simply reading a religious text, as depicted in the play, is enough to tip someone into God-fearing extremism. In a world of echo chambers and social media rabbit holes, which existed when “Martyr” was originally produced in 2012, it’s perplexing that Mayenburg doesn’t depict how the teenager falls into his spiritual rut.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, why does Benjamin become a Christian zealot? Mayenburg provides some subtle hints — Benjamin comes from a broken family, falls into religious extremism to shroud his social awkwardness and uses it as a shield for his own self-loathing, perhaps — but never follows up on these vague threads.
As Benjamin, Traboulsi seeks to find depth in a character that is surprisingly one-dimensional. Initially, he avoids playing the teenager as an exploding powder keg. Traboulsi’s Benjamin is more adrift, unsure of the convictions he spouts, clinging to his religious dogma like a life raft. Slowly, as he faces increased resistance, he becomes more emboldened and entrenched in his positions — his eyes no longer sullen but blazing with fury.
Traboulsi’s efforts to forge a character arc are commendable even if this arc has little textual foundation on which to stand.
What’s clear, however, is that Mayenburg is attempting to craft an allegory of the struggle between religious zealotry and secularism, as seen through the lens of Benjamin and his teacher, Erica White.
But there’s little discourse when Benjamin is painted so unsympathetically and his teacher’s reactions, up until the final scene, seem so understandable — and in some ways, perhaps restrained, given how Benjamin aims to eliminate her and her views.
Other characters are even more dimensionless. Willy Belford (Ryan Allen) is a caricature of an incompetent, and inappropriate, school administrator, while Vicar Dexter Menrath (Ryan Hollyman) is used to represent the religious establishment’s slipping grip over extremist factions.
Most confounding of all is Mayenburg’s depiction of Benjamin’s mother. Single, divorced, works the night shift, seemingly unable to connect with her son: her characteristics are no different from a parent in a typical kitchen-sink drama about a dysfunctional family with a troubled teen. Drakeford’s exasperated portrayal does little to elevate the role.
Of all the secondary characters, it’s Benjamin’s schoolmate George who is most compelling, thanks in large part to Adriano Reis’s absorbing performance as the kid with a leg deformity who is sucked into Benjamin’s orbit, only to turn into another casualty.
Other performances are uneven; some too broad while others too restrained. Overall, it appears the ARC Stage ensemble hasn’t quite settled into the barbed cadence of Mayenburg’s dialogue, with a handful of missed cues on opening night.
It’s Kempson’s well-conceived staging, along with sets by Jackie Chau and vivid lighting by Michelle Ramsay, that seems to be the most polished aspect of this production.
Kempson makes it evident that this play is meant to hold a mirror to society: our hypocrisy, intolerance, polarization and neglect of those ever increasing tendencies. The action takes place on an elevated traverse stage, with the audience seating on opposite sides of the playing space. When the actors aren’t onstage, they sit on orange chairs that flank the other two sides of the platform.
Chau’s wooden set is framed like an agora, where debate and words fly. It’s a robust vessel for an invigorating drama. And indeed, “Martyr,” has much to say. It just can’t quite get it out.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION