The Banality of Evil, School Shooter Edition
At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a would-be mass murderer bares his soul in the chilling but unilluminating The 20th of November.
The 20th Of November
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
Runs to Oct. 4
$20 – $37
We’re in a public space, full of people, when a young man with wild hair, dressed in sweats, pulls out a canvas hockey bag lying under his chair. He opens it and proceeds to unpack an assault rifle, a pump-action shotgun, a pistol, a hunting knife, and several sinister-looking canisters. You watch him, a sudden chill coming over you, and even though the public space is a theatre and this is a performance of a play called The 20th of November, you can’t help but think of all the times something similar has happened—in schools, in workplaces, in a cinema, in a church…
The 20th of November, receiving its English-Canadian premiere at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is a Swedish play based on the words of a school shooter. He was Sebastian Bosse, an 18-year-old in Emsdetten, Germany, who, on Nov. 20, 2006, entered his former high school and shot and wounded five people before turning a gun on himself. Bosse left behind various writings and videos expressing his frustration and rage, out of which veteran Swedish playwright Lars Norén has woven an only fitfully interesting soliloquy.
The production, however, is striking, even unnerving—something we’ve come to expect from Brendan Healy, who is staging it as the first show of the new Buddies season and his last as the venerable queer theatre’s artistic director. We enter Buddies’ protean cabaret space to find it reconfigured as if for a large group therapy session (the set is designed by Camellia Koo). The chairs are ringed in a wide circle, with Sebastian (Sina Gilani) sitting slumped at its far end, a microphone in his hand. “The loser has the mic,” he tells us. And while he has it, he’s going to vent the bile that has been building up in him since childhood.
He has always felt like an outsider. He has been relentlessly bullied. He despises western middle-class values. He has a nihilistic outlook. These are the reasons he’s decided to walk into his old school and open fire. Norén clearly believes it’s important for us to listen to the young men who go on these shooting rampages and he lets Bosse have his say posthumously.
But, at the risk of sounding callous, what the play’s Sebastian has to say is largely mundane. Aren’t teenagers, of any generation, known for feeling alienated and nihilistic, for despising their parents’ world? Aren’t we already aware that these shooters were often bullied and tormented? The fact is that Sebastian, like many of those before and after him, was mentally ill. And while the ravings of the insane can be compelling, they aren’t always enlightening.
Norén’s play—translated by Toronto actor-playwright Gord Rand—is most illuminating when Sebastian speaks within a specific context. As a young German, he feels the weight of his country’s Nazi legacy and refuses to look past it, recounting for us the sadism of the death camps. As a child of western pop culture, he feels closer to The Simpsons than to his own family. But much of the time his monologue is repetitive and over-familiar. Talk about the banality of evil.
The resourceful Healy battles that banality with various theatrical devices. Gilani, armed with a sound system, uses an effects pedal to alter and distort his voice, allowing him to recreate a conversation between the child Sebastian and one of his teachers. At another point, the actor wraps his face in tape, temporarily disfiguring it, as if to physically depict his character’s twisted mind. (He looks like a Francis Bacon portrait come to life.) Gilani’s Sebastian also asks the audience questions and even offers us the microphone. There were no takers on opening night, but in retrospect this would be a more exciting play if someone did step up and challenge Sebastian’s viewpoint, or offer to help him.
Gilani, a young Iranian-Canadian actor, doesn’t resemble the real Sebastian Bosse—if anyone of that ilk, he looks more like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. But that apparent miscasting seems a deliberate choice on Healy’s part, just as the weapons this Sebastian is toting aren’t quite the same ones actually used by Bosse. (The program credits April Nicole with “weapons consultation.”) We’re meant to look past the details of the Emsdetten incident to recognize in Sebastian those aspects he shares with his brothers in infamy, from Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to Dark Knight shooter James Eagan Holmes.
The novice Gilani acquits himself well in a difficult role—at times his Sebastian has the pained fragility of an adolescent just begging to be understood. But he hasn’t yet acquired the acting experience to find the shadings and nuances in his character. Instead, he has to rely on that effects pedal to impress us.
With Norén’s unfiltered, uninterpreted documentary approach, we’re left to decide whether Sebastian’s rage reflects any greater societal failings or is just the ranting of an unbalanced mind. The play may be a reaction to all the editorializing and pontificating that occurs after these shootings—Bosse’s actions were blamed at the time on an addiction to violent video games. But a sensitive work of fiction that seeks some answers, like Colleen Murphy’s 2007 drama The December Man, inspired by the École Polytechnique massacre, is ultimately of more value.
Props to Healy, however, for ending his successful Buddies tenure in the same kind of brave, provocative fashion that has characterized his programming for the past six years. His choice of international scripts has invariably been daring (remember Blasted? PIG?), while his bold directing style, both on and off the Buddies stage (remember Entertaining Mr. Sloane at Soulpepper?), leaves us eager to see what he’ll do in the future.