Review: Besbouss: Autopsy of a Revolt (Pleiades Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre)

Photo of Adam Paolozza and Saïd BenyoucefBesbouss take on Arab Spring lacks commitment

There has been a death, and a government demands answers. Only an investigation can reveal the truth in Pleides Theatre’s Besbouss: Autopsy of a Revolt playing at Streetcar Crowsnest.

What’s discovered, however, is neither optimistic or eye-opening. The culprit? Too much drama and not enough substance.

You walk into the theatre, and you are faced with a huge, imposing, off-kilter wall with a muted shine. Teresa Pryzblyski has created an amazing set, whose very surface comes into play later in the show.

The set is much like the subject matter: huge, imposing, and very, very real.

I want to take a moment and point out that the real-life story of Mohamed Bouazizi inspired playwright Stephane Brulotte. Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to actions taken by municipal officials, an event that is credited with being a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.

Additionally, director Majdi Bou-Matar, speaks directly to the fact that many of the Arab Spring protests continue to this day. In other words: Besbouss is about a very real incident whose implications are ongoing.

Although I’m here to talk about a play, I can’t help but feel I need to emphasize that politics and theatre are not always perfect bedfellows. Just because a play is saying something important, or drawing attention to an issue, doesn’t automatically make it emotionally resonate.

Ultimately, this piece just didn’t work for me. I don’t feel it delivered any earth-shattering insights into the nature of protest and social justice.

Instead, I feel that the play treads water, too afraid to commit to an action or a side until halfway through its 80-minute run. Even then, it sinks under the weight of everything it is trying to show and so fails at making an impact on me.

In the piece, Dr. Karim Djebara (Saïd Benyoucef) is given the impossible task of clearing the government from blame for a young fruit vendor’s self-immolation. In the morgue, Djebara performs the autopsy on the victim, Bouazizi (Adam Paolozza), as protests occur in the streets.

Is Bouazizi’s suicide worth the martyr status that has been given to him by the protestors? Is there another way to inspire change in the masses? The conflict rests in Djebara’s insistence that there is another way.

When Bouazizi comes back to life, there’s a lot more kick to the debate. Paolozza’s physicality brings some absurdity to Benyoucef’s monologues, raising prolonged rants about how things used to be into a comedic script.

These moments are best seen in the strange game of hide-and-seek that plays out between Djebara and Bouazizi. Benyoucef mimes exaggerated sneaking as he hunts ‘justice,’ played by a poorly hidden Paolozza.

It is cartoonish, sharp, and on point. Justice is easy to find in theory, but just because the idea is present, doesn’t make it easy to catch in real life.

Even the actors felt more energized in the scene, suddenly bouncing easily off one another in a way that was missing in other sections of the work.

And this is where I am at a lost. I don’t know how a show that has this fantastic moment never quite manages to find such heights again.

It may be the script that feels heavy-handed, and as though it insists on spoon-feeding the audience every idea before we finally get to the main course.

Or, perhaps it is that Bou-Matar’s ability to add more life and motion to the absurd moments leaves the rest of the play feeling lethargic, heavy, and slow for me, instead of thoughtful and poignant. Those moments exist, like when Benyoucef lights a contemplative cigarette over the burnt body whose autopsy he’s going to falsifying. But it is not the overarching feel for me.

I think the problem is simply that the subject is too big. The ideas loom over the play and make the text, the actors, and the direction difficult to see.


Photo of Adam Paolozza and Saïd Benyoucef in by Cylla von Tiedemann.