Leaving Traditional Love Stories in the Dust

I had a visceral reaction when I first read the synopsis of Northern Light Theatre’s latest show, Dust: Abu Ghraib Prison. Jenny works in the office. Jonathan is a prison guard. They meet. They fall in love. And someone takes photos. Dust is a chilling, and ultimately moving examination of torture, decency and the limits of love.”

I’ll admit, I didn’t want to see the show, much less preview it. But then, I started examining my gut reaction to the show.

Why would I want to see a show about a prison renowned for its human rights offenses? 

But the show isn’t about the prison, it’s about two people meeting there. The prison is a backdrop.

But how can I watch a production about love when I know the backdrop is the setting of these horrible crimes?

Does it matter? The performance is about two people falling in love.

BUT HOW CAN LOVE HAPPEN IN SUCH A TERRIBLE PLACE?!

Monice Peter, who plays Jenny, explains the premise of the story, which is that the two facts I was struggling to reconcile are at the heart of the play: “It’s the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq and I think in 2004 is when the images [from Abu Ghraib prison] came out. It’s interesting because the play is set in Abu Ghraib – this cell-like place – and then there’s a love story that’s set against that. I really attached to the love that Jenny gets to experience throughout the show. The story for me is really about these two characters finding each other and loving each other in the twisted way that it ends up.” Paul Sutherland, who plays Jonathan, elaborates, “the romance that comes out of two people who are desperate, each for something slightly different, and they find each other and there’s not really anyone else that can fill those needs for each other, and then there’s some photographs that are extremely disturbing and threatening to both of the characters and Jonathan really tries to save Jenny from what may happen. He’s willing to sacrifice himself in his love for her to try to redeem herself.”

Although the play includes a “love story” component, as you may have guessed by now, it’s nowhere close to the traditional love stories we’re used to seeing. The setting and circumstances aside, the gender roles are completely upended for each of the characters. Paul explained to me that Trevor Schmidt, Northern Light Theatre’s Artistic Director told him “Jenny is the male energy and Jon is the female energy…. we’re all used to this misogynistic society and this is a complete flip from that. And also you’re in Abu Ghraib Prison – you’re in a prison within a prison… Jonathan’s character is really lonely with all these soldiers surrounding him and then Jenny comes and it’s basically like a doorway opens in his world. Something he’s been craving for so long and the door slams shut and he couldn’t get out, even if he wanted to.”

While Dust tells a twisted story about a time and place that many wish they could forget, the duo think that Edmonton’s audiences are ready for it. Dust runs at the TransAlta Art Barns from April 5 – 13, in the PCL Studio – seating is very limited. For schedule information, visit YEGLive.ca or buy tickets ($21 – 28) from Tix on the Square.

Read more about Northern Light Theatre’s 2012/2013 season in my interview with Artistic Director, Trevor Schmidt.

– Jenna Marynowski

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