Tuesday, April 11, 2023

theatrical review

When my brother and I toured northern New England some 15 years ago, one of our more intriguing visits was to the Haskell Free Library, which is a public library deliberately built in 1904 on the international border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec. The entrance is in the U.S., but most of the library is in Canada; a dark line down the floor marks the border.

The idea was to commemorate and exemplify the freedom along the "longest undefended border" in the world, but by the time we got there, it was no longer undefended. Canadians could only reach the entrance by walking a specified route and promising to return immediately upon leaving. Jersey barriers blocked the residential streets that casually crossed the border, and swarms of US border patrol guards lurked around, ready to pounce upon and question anybody who looked suspicious, like a couple of geography-buff brothers who were poking around the neighborhood to see exactly where the border ran.

So I was mightily curious to see a play set there. World premiere plays can be a very hazardous proposition, but this one was good. It's called A Distinct Society, and it's by Kareem Fahmy, a Canadian-born writer of Egyptian descent. It's set just after the Trump travel ban of 2017, which made things worse. The library became kind of a neutral zone, just about the only place where - to take the characters presented in this play - a man from Iran, free to enter Canada but not the U.S., could meet his daughter who's in the U.S. on a student visa but can't leave the country. According to the play, some blogger using the name Elizabeth Bennet let the world know about this and it became popular, so the border patrol is cracking down: visits only five minutes, and no passing along gifts.

The other characters in the play are the librarian, who's just trying to keep the peace (but who's a Jane Austen fan; hm, interesting); a border guard, who has the sweets on the librarian and is not very enthusiastic about the restrictions but is under heavy job pressure to enforce them; and a truant high school student, whose enthusiasm is for Green Lantern comics, excuse me graphic novels, and is always pulling moral lessons out of them to educate the other characters. As the title suggests, the history of Quebec separatism also makes an appearance. It was about an hour and a half, no intermission, well acted, dragged very little. I liked it and am glad I went. Running in Mountain View to the end of April.

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