ARTS Brothers wrestle with Cain and Abel
he first thing you need to ask about two brothers making a dance-theatre work called Cain and Abel is “Do these guys get along?”
By every indication, famously so. Local siblings Aryo and Arash Khakpour have been working together for six years, pushing the bounds of performance in physically extreme ways.
But the duo behind the Biting School company admit there can be tension, especially in their creative process. “It’s interesting, because we kind of wrestle with each other to talk about work and share with each other—and it’s the same thing on-stage,” Arash offers, talking with his brother over speakerphone on a rehearsal break at an East Side dance studio. “Seeing us on-stage is a good depiction of what our relationship is.”
“But being brothers, definitely, yes, makes communication better,” Aryo interjects. “Part of that is being close collaborators.”
Each of the brothers brings something different to the mix. But to understand that, you first have to rewind a bit. For the older Aryo, who spent more of his life in Iran, seeing his first operatic production in Tehran got him hooked on theatre. Since coming to Vancouver, he’s gotten a BFA in theatre performance from Simon Fraser University, and worked as a performer, director, and dramaturge.
As for Arash, who came here in Grade 9, friends introduced him to contemporary dance, and he’s a graduate of Out Innerspace’s Modus Operandi training program and a performer with companies like Wen Wei Dance and Kinesis Dance somatheatro.
Neither of their parents is an artist. Their father is a medical doctor and ENT surgeon, and their mother a homemaker. “But our mom does
Cain and Abel.
love dancing, I must say—at parties she would always have a solo,” Aryo explains. “But making the transition wasn’t easy,” he continues. “It was ‘What are you doing? You have to be an engineer or a doctor.’ ”
“I did sign up for engineering, and I dropped out two weeks before,” says Arash, who then immersed himself in dance. “Aryo was supporting me a lot through that.…as with any immigrant culture, you’re coming to a different country to thrive, and being a male dancer was probably one of the last things they were expecting.”
“But that fight is finished and we have their full support now,” Aryo emphasizes. “It’s very interesting to have our doctor father see the piece and say, ‘Oh, this is what your piece is about.’ ”
The story of Cain and Abel turns out to bridge their Iranian and Canadian cultures. The events in the Koran, which they grew up knowing, are almost identical to the tale in the Hebrew and Christian Bible. In it, the two sons of Adam and Eve offer up sacrifices to God; when He rejects Cain’s but accepts Abel’s, Cain jealously slays his sibling—in the first act of murder on Earth.
“Diving into the story itself, it’s very personal—it’s the first birth of a human and he killed his first brother,” Aryo says. “They’re so ingrained in our psyche that they’re archetypes now. You can talk about anything you like and layer images on top of all that. And we liked that simplicity of it.”
For the brothers, the story opened up ideas of fratricide, patriarchy, masculinity, and more. “People see it politically, and some people see just two brothers beating each other up,” Aryo quips.
Where the Khakpours get really experimental is in the second half of the show, reimagining the story as two female siblings, and drawing inspiration from Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids.
“The first part is the first day of the world, with Adam and Eve, and it’s quite physical and raw, so there’s a huge fast-forward in time for the second part,” Aryo says, stressing that the aggressive male story contrasts the tone of the females’. They seem to be asking us to consider how our world might be different if it had been two sisters instead of the two brothers, Cain and Abel.
Expect an experience with visuals and sounds sometimes as wild as the physical action. Alex Mah creates the soundscape, with lighting by Parjad Sharifi in the first half and Sophie Tang in the second. And the Khakpours will make symbolic use of props, including a lipstick.
So how do the brothers categorize the work? A little good-natured sibling rivalry seems to crop up here again.
“I think whatever we do, I am going to say it is theatre and Arash is going to think it’s dance,” Aryo quips.
PLAYWRIGHT KAT SANDLER won the 2016 Dora Award for outstanding new play for her jaw-dropping professional debut, Mustard. The Arts Club’s new coproduction with Victoria’s Belfry Theatre makes it easy to understand why.
The titular character, played by Andrew Mcnee, is the imaginary friend of Thai (Heidi Damayo), a very angry 16-year-old whose personal life and home life are disastrous. Thai and her mom, Sadie (Jenny Wasko-paterson), are both still devastated that Thai’s dad walked out a year earlier. Sadie is selfmedicating with wine and pills, while Thai is getting into physical fights at school and screaming at Sadie, and Mustard is forced to face up to the fact that in his own desire to be needed, he has overstayed his welcome and delayed Thai’s ability to grow up and cope with her feelings.
Sandler’s writing is so good and it holds up beautifully to director Stephen Drover’s decision to start big and stay there, every emotion and every confrontation epic and unrelenting. This isn’t wholly a criticism, because most of the time the production’s broadness matches Mustard’s balance of arch whimsy and traumedy (trauma-informed comedy). But there’s also a lot of tenderness and nuance in Sandler’s script, and Drover’s pacing puts additional demands on his already hard-working cast.
Damayo, making her Arts Club debut, is fantastic. Thai’s anger is utterly believable, as are the familiar teenage mood swings—deliberately cruel to madly in love, utter despair to all-consuming rage. Wasko-paterson is heartbreaking and hilarious, and she builds a bridge between the two effortlessly. Mustard is a physically demanding role, but it’s also an emotionally rigorous one, and Mcnee is brilliant. The play hinges significantly on his performance, and he’s flawless. Also, the chemistry between Wasko-paterson and Mcnee is perfect, from their first startled meeting when Sadie discovers she can suddenly see Mustard to their sweetly off-kilter flirtation.
These performances are inspired by Sandler’s way with dialogue. I think one of the marks of a well-written play is the cast’s ability to navigate the language, particularly the swearing, and Mustard’s every F-bomb lands with precision. It’s also a play that sneaks up on you, and doesn’t provide any tidy resolutions or easy answers about love, family, and the lies we tell ourselves about loneliness, feeling needed, and the reality of growing up. Mustard is wonderful and weird, and it signals a powerful and welcome new voice in contemporary theatre.