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Playwright Comes of Age with Counter Offence

Winston Sutton Writes About Rahul Varma's Counter Offence

written by Will Sutton in June 1998

Rahul Varma is honest and uncompromising in his work as a playwright. As founding member and Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya (an East Indian theatre compa­ny), his plays target racism, injustice, and inequality in Canadian society. The broad spectrum of his work includes Isolated Incident, about the killing of a black man by a racist white cop; Equal Wages, dealing with wage disparity between men and women; Job Stealer, exploring the perception that immigrants are stealing jobs from Canadian-born workers; and Land Where The Trees Talk, about the North Bay Hydro Electric Project and its effects on the Cree Indians.

Varma’s early accomplishments burned with rage, an anger often obscuring the real message. However, this rage soon gave way to a skilful handling of material, and the true brilliance of his work began to reveal itself. This is most evident in his latest effort, Counter Offence, which played at the Monument Nationale, Montreal, September 25 to October 5, 1997. It was a co-production between Teesri Duniya and the Black Theatre Workshop.

In Counter Offence, Shapoor, an Iranian studying in Canada on a student visa, marries Shazia, the daughter of East Indian parents living in Montreal. The marriage is not without problems, and one day, in one of his many heated moments of anger, Shapoor hits his wife. Shazia calls the police and Sgt. Guy Gaillard from the domestic unit answers the call. Because of his own experiences with conjugal violence (his mother was killed by his father), Gaillard is rough in his treatment of Shapoor. In steps an Indo-Canadian anti-racist activist, Moolchand Mira, who exploits Sgt. Gaillard’s handling of Shapoor to advance his own views and uses racism as a platform against the predominantly white police force and its Brotherhood, headed by Gilles Prougault.

Prougault, though seemingly fair, has political ambitions within the union, and is fully capable of machinations. Shazia finds support from her parents, Shafiqa and Mohammed Rizvi, but her father is more concerned with his standing in his ethnic community than with Shazia’s real welfare. Shazia finds support in Clarinda Keith, a black woman running a centre for battered women, who understandably, has zero tolerance for domestic violence. Moolchand tries to play on divided loyalties, arguing that she should join him in nailing the whites, but she says she will testify in favour of Gaillard, who is committed to her cause.

Moolchand’s tenacious pursuit of Sgt. Gaillard pays off when Gaillard is summoned to an inquiry, a development not taken kindly by the police or the Brotherhood. Soon after, in a seemingly bizarre coincidence, Shapoor is found dead in a YMCA hotel room, and suspicions are raised. According to Varma,”Counter Offence explores an explosive situation when crime against a woman is turned into a crime against race.

On entering the theatre one is immediately struck by the simplicity of the set, comprised mainly of door frames illuminated by sharp contrasts of light and shadow. The downstage right comer is furnished with a frame and a makeshift bed representing the YMCA hotel room, while at the opposite end another frame is placed to define the centre for battered women. The empty space downstage centre becomes an outside location in one scene, then transforms itself into a courtroom when a frame is placed in the area in a horizontal position. Another vertical frame that begins as an entrance into a prison cell converts the area into another location by altering the frame’s angle. This convention established by director Jack Langedijk and designed by J. David Gutman works extremely well and allows for fluid movement from scene to scene without breaking the move­ment or momentum of the play.

Gutman also uses light very imaginatively. The contrast of light and shadow satisfies the obvious intention of bringing focus to the action; however, the shadow ele­ment is important to Moolchand’s movements as it serves as a metaphor for his hidden agenda of racism, a clear subplot of the play.

Raiomond Mirza’s music blends well with these other technical elements. It performs the dual function of supplying the smooth transitions between scenes and establishing mood, tranquil at times, and at others, hauntingly disturbing.

The stellar cast included: Cas Anvar as Shapoor, Raminder Singh as Shazia, Stephen Orlov as Sgt. Gaillard, Prasun (Raja) Lala as Moolchand, Jacklin Webb as Clarinda Keith (Judy Rudd played the role in the origi­nal production), Mark Walker as Gilles Prougault, Kapil Bawa as Shazia’s father Mohammed, and Ranjana Jha as her mother Shafiqa.

The ensemble work and the truth and simplicity of the performances offer the audience an experience of the richness and complexity of the characters portrayed. With Varma’s support and insight, Langedijk carves this sensitive and thought-provoking story into a truly won­derful theatrical experience.

– Reprinted from Canadian Theatre Review 94 (Spring 1998). Copyright @1998, University of Toronto Press. Reprinted by per­ mission of University of Toronto Press Incorporated.

Winston Sutton teaches in the Department of Theatre, Dawson College, Montreal.