A KNIFE TO THE CHEST: Ghost River Theatre presents Everything Is Terribly Nice Here, written by David van Belle and directed by Eric Rose. The show runs until December 22 and stars Clinton Carew as Theo, Ali Momen as Haitham, and Alexa Devine as She.
Video courtesy of Ghost River Theatre

A new play debuting in Calgary this week has an interesting twist – what would happen if you put two extreme characters in a room together for a thousand years?

Everything Is Terribly Nice Here is being called intelligent theatre that challenges assumptions about fundamentalism and the limits of tolerance. And for playwright David van Belle, it’s something he’s been thinking about for a long time.

“I began with an actual event – the 2004 murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri,” he explained.

“Van Gogh was attacked on the street in retaliation for a film he made called Submission. He had a reputation for being a provocateur, you might even say an asshole, and he offended a lot of people, particularly in the Islamic community. Bouyeri was a disenfranchised second-generation Moroccan immigrant who dove deep into a pretty militant faith. It seemed to me that both of them were fundamentalists in their own way. I started wondering what would happen if you put these two extreme characters in a room together for a long, long period of time – say a thousand years. How would they respond to each other over time? My imagination took it from there.”

Presented by Ghost River Theatre in association Rumble Productions, Everything Is Terribly Nice Here runs December 12 to December 22 at the Pumphouse Theatre.

First the audience meets Theo, a man who wakes up terrified in a room without doors. It’s stark and bare like a cell and impaled in his chest is a knife holding a five-page manifesto. His attacker, Haitham, is praying on the other side of the room.

And here’s where they’ll stay for a thousand years.

“I’m obsessed with long stretches of time,” said David. “I think that some of the differences that we think are eternal aren’t really that – we just have a hard time thinking about anything that lasts longer than a few months or a few years at most.”

David himself spent a lot of time working on the play, five years and 12 script drafts thus far, and is very satisfied to see the work finally on stage.

“It’s very exciting and satisfying to see the work being enfleshed finally – to get it out of my head and into time and space, which is where the theatre exists. You are forced, however, to deal with all the things that work just great on paper but don’t quite go quite as well on stage,” he explained. “Eric Rose, the director and my co-Artistic Director at Ghost River, is ruthless about clear communication with an audience, thank God. You’re confronted with the reality that an audience is only going to be able to hear the words once, and then they’re gone. There’s no flipping back pages to see what you’ve missed.”

Writing the play was a huge challenge for David but was well worth it as it opens the door for more communication.

“This is probably the most ideologically complicated play I’ve ever worked on. The territory is dangerous – religious ideas (and I believe both the main characters speak from their own perspectives of faith) are fraught with complexity. The notion of ‘getting it right’ was paralyzing me as an artist – and so I had to give it up,” he continued. “My sense is that people will come to the show with their own perspectives and beliefs, and they’ll respond from their own places of engagement. And I think that’s a good thing. Let’s talk more. Let’s figure things out together. Let’s respond to each other. Let’s not be quiet.”

Because the play treads on dangerous ground and challenges people to think  the creators wanted to encourage further discussion, so much so they even had an Open Discussion with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation on November 27.

“Part of our approach to producing this play and responding to the play’s political complexity, was to try to broaden the discussion as much as possible,” said David. “We had a beautiful evening in which we read about 20 minutes from the show, had a few guest panelists and then opened the discussion up to the audience. The crowd was about 50 per cent lawyers and 50 per cent theatre people, which was a dynamite combination. I think we brought different ways of thinking to the discussion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, finding something beyond a binary relationship.”

Everything is Terribly Nice Here runs until December 22 at the Pumphouse’s Joyce Doolittle Theatre. AUDIENCE ADVISORY: STRONG LANGUAGE, BRIEF NUDITY, PROVOCATIVE IDEAS.