While lacking in intensity as both activism and art, Borne, the RARE Theatre Company’s new collective creation, nevertheless provides a moving human experience and an enjoyable evening at the theatre.
Borne, which opened on July 1 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District and runs throughout July, features nine performers who use wheelchairs – many of them paralyzed in chillingly recounted accidents, a couple of them born with disabling conditions – none of them actors by trade. Drawn entirely from material generated during a series of confessional workshops, the script by Judith Thompson showcases each performer’s true story alongside songs, scenes, and sketches. The simple and lovely set by Beth Kates consists of a large circular space painted to resemble the moon. This beguiling lunar imagery permeates the script and unites the play’s various parts, signifying at once isolation, fate, and the possibility of transcendence.
The program stresses that Borne is not just about stories, but “also about bodies moving in space, about the complicated and powerful emotions that can be expressed […] even through the movement of one wheelchair in relationship with another.” From the opening moments, as Nancy Xia glides onstage and passes back and forth in front of the audience in long, liquid curves, the theatrical virtue of the wheelchair establishes itself. Apart from the occasionally jerky movement of the electric wheelchairs and one or two minor bumps, the performers move swiftly and gracefully about the stage. At certain key moments, certain performers even leave their wheelchairs, to astonishing effect – Russell Winkelaar’s wheelchair mastery in particular supplies several of the shows most thrilling moments, including the haunting final tableau. These moments explode our perceptions of the casts’ limitations, as does Nikoletta Erdelyi and Maayan Ziv’s frank discussion of their sex lives, in which their own idiosyncratic bodies are, unsurprisingly, central and, perhaps surprisingly, key, activating their partners’ desires.
The cast provides a range of talents, from Danilo Raralio’s piano playing to David Shannon’s booming voice. Unfortunately, the show only intermittently overcomes the fact that these are performers, not actors. Cast members tell their own stories competently, but the scenes between them tend to droop. Although Dan Harvey declares his desire to beat up Artie, the wheelchair-using character on Glee who is controversially performed by an actor without a disability, one wonders in Borne’s weaker moments whether professional actors, with or without disabilities, might indeed better represent these individuals and their stories. In a luminous later scene, however, Ziv and Harvey act magnificently as lovers discussing, tentatively, how two individuals in electric wheelchairs initiate physical intimacy. In such a moment, Borne triumphs.
But what exactly is Borne trying to achieve? Is it raising awareness and educating? Is it exposing an exclusive cultural enclave to some of society’s most comprehensively marginalized individuals? Or is it simply attempting to entertain? To rephrase the question somewhat inadequately: is Borne activism or is it art? If it aims to deliver a concrete lesson or to propose a program of tangible reforms, it fails. For a show seemingly activist in nature, from the increasingly polemical Thompson, Borne features relatively little in the way of proselytizing. Danilo Raralio makes perhaps the strongest statement of the evening when he compares inaccessibility to his own experience of racial profiling and police brutality. David Shannon, meanwhile, describes the chilling sensation he felt when driving past the farm of Richard Latimer, who killed his daughter to end the pain caused by her cerebral palsy.
Instead of confronting the issue more substantially, however, Shannon leaves the question of Tracy Latimer’s death hanging. Maayan Ziv voices the most idiosyncratic and therefore dramaturgically compelling opinions in the show, defending her prerogative to seek employment in an industry – the fashion industry – seemingly antipathetic to the disabled cause and confessing that she resists being identified as disabled and found associating with her fellow cast members difficult. But as one of nine performers, Ziv’s perspectives are only cursorily explored. Several other performers – Shannon, Harley Nott, and Joshua Dvorkin in particular – fade into the background.
The prevailing message, a laudable one, seems to be simply that these individuals are precisely that: individuals, with desires, fears, and aspirations all their own. A few moments in the company of the cast of Borne is enough to refute a serious prejudice. But I found myself surprised and somewhat disappointed that Borne didn’t hit harder. Perhaps this is, in itself, indicative of prejudice, as if every contact with the disabled must be life-changing and revelatory. Yet that is precisely what we ask of great theatre and effective polemic: that they provoke and electrify us. Borne may not constitute an unequivocal triumph as art or as activism. But it remains enjoyable, eye-opening and, like its cast, profoundly human.