Imagine that you are driving to work (either by car or on your Earth-friendly bicycle) and as you are heading along the road, another driver cuts you off without so much as a wave of apology. (I find that those driving Audis or riding fixed-gear bikes are more likely to do this, but that’s just me.) You flash with anger­; your heart beats faster and your pulse quickens, your nostrils flare, the grip on your vehicle tightens. You might even shout something foul or flip the bird. It’s a small thing, and no one was hurt, but it was extremely rude and something you might mention to your co-workers when you arrive: “Some asshole cut me off this morning!” It shows that the cutter has more regard for her time, space, and safety, than she does for yours, or else that the cutter was more oblivious than you were on your morning commute. Most would agree that you’re not out of line to be upset, so long as it’s not excessive. Most would agree that the cutter has committed a transgression, however small or seemingly small.

The next morning you arrive to work without incident—the experience of being cut off does not warrant thought or mention. Have you forgiven the driver who cut you off, or have you merely forgotten yesterday’s annoyance? Is forgiveness even warranted for such a small indignity? Or is it demanded of you?

What about the man who murdered your child? Is it ever possible to forgive him? What does that kind of forgiveness look like? Can forgiveness ever be granted for the Shoah, the Armenian genocide, or the systematic destruction of First Nations cultures? If so, who has the authority to grant it?

It is the vexing question of forgiveness that Modern Times Stage Company in Toronto takes as a starting point for their most recent production, Forgiveness: A Theatrical Poem, in association with Danish-based dance company Don*Gnu, physical theater company Bora Bora, and performing arts development center Laboratoriet; and Toronto-based Dreamwalker Dance Company.  

An intensive movement piece interspersed with text, music, and silence, Forgiveness, like a poem, rewards contemplation as well as a multiplicity of interpretations. The idea to theatrically explore the theme of forgiveness came to director Soheil Parsa and writer/performer Peter Farbridge while travelling in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006, in what remains the long aftermath of a decade of devastating war and ethnic strife. While there, they encountered a man who would often pass by the soldier who killed his son during the war. They asked the man what it was like to be constantly encountering the person who killed his son, and the man replied immediately that he had forgiven the soldier. Although they either did not ask or do not tell the story of how this individual had forgiven his son’s killer, one senses that this piece of theater is their attempt to answer the question, how can forgiveness like that be possible? Is forgiveness truly possible at all? It seems an irrefutable part of human life that at some point each of us will be in need of forgiveness, but does it necessarily follow that forgiveness is ever truly granted?

And what exactly is a theatrical poem? In order to speak of a piece such as Forgiveness, we must resist the temptation to engage in hermeneutics, in meanings, and answers, and speak instead of the poetics of the piece—of how the piece holistically functions to relate some semblance of a whole, of a feeling, of perhaps a way of life. And because it’s a poem, and carefully structured by director Soheil Parsa along with writers Farbridge and Barbara Simonsen, it exists as a collection of stanzas interlocking; their connectivity makes it seem inappropriate to call them vignettes, but maybe that helps paint a picture.

At the opening of the piece in the cavernous yet intimate space of the Great Hall Black Box, the figures of the five performers (Farbridge, Stavroula Logothettis, Andrea Nann, Jannik Elkaer Nielsen, and Kristoffer Louis Andrup Pedersen) face us directly as a small tape recorder plays various sound bites from random people asked about forgiveness: what it is, whether it is possible, and why it may occur. The sound bites were contradictory and revelatory, and the performers stood there silently acknowledging us hearing these definitions—our definitions—of forgiveness.

The movement was either so subtle or so hypnotic that I did not recognize it as movement at all, but at some point I looked to the stage to find that upstage center performer Andrea Nann was sitting on a folding chair, legs spread just beyond her hips, and a strong line of deep blue light cut across the floor, seeming to emanate from between her legs. On either side of her, downstage, stood the remaining performers, two each staggered stage left and stage right, each bathed in a pool of gentle light (much credit is due to lighting designer Michelle Ramsay), divided by the stark blue light suggesting both a kind of irreconcilable apart-ness and also a powerful image reminding us that we all come from the same place, the same position. And there we remained, in the suggested womb, before sin, before good, before evil, before we needed to give or seek forgiveness, until a sudden crash of sound and movement sent all the performers into a whirlwind, running, wrestling, jumping, hitting the various set pieces and generally making hell, or, if you prefer, being alive.

From here on it is a series of stanzas, unique but interconnected, and driven primarily by movement. We are taken to the bedside of a dying perpetrator, who calls from his deathbed to ask forgiveness of one of his victims. As the victim attempts to leave without granting forgiveness or absolution, he is blocked from leaving time and time again, as if to compel him to give what is his alone to give—or is it? The juxtaposition of the languid movements of the victim trying to escape, the supine perpetrator, and the harsh and definitive movements of the person blocking the victim’s exit seems to suggest that in choosing whether or not to forgive someone a transgression, we are often confronted by powerful social norms or expectations that may demand something from us beyond our capacity or willingness to give.

Another stanza has us in the operating room of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity begging for water only to be given none and tormented in his death as he tormented in life: forgiveness denied. He is rushed into the “operating room” with the utmost urgency, like an ER scene from a film, only to have his tormenter work upon him slowly and precisely. A recurring pattern of movement and tone in each stanza is that of chaotic and frenetic movement followed by periods of calm stillness, an effective metaphor for our daily patterns of activity and reflection.

five actors on stage
The cast of Forgiveness: A Theatrical Poem. Photo by Jon Lauener

This theatrical poem does not deal exclusively with questions of forgiveness prompted by genocide, torture, or crimes against humanity. It also explores the everyday transgressions of selfishness in relationships, and a memorable lunch meeting scene between Farbridge and Logothettis brings us back to the nitty-gritty of what forgiveness means in our own (largely safe) lives. This shifting between the quotidian and the colossal serves structurally to suggest that while there is definitely a hierarchy of transgressions, the struggle for forgiveness is fundamental and largely unchanging. Whether you are left to forgive the man who killed your son or an unfaithful partner, the act of forgiveness is the same.  

The creators of the piece say that they hope it will produce more questions than answers, and as a work of theater and a work of poetry, Forgiveness revels in asking questions and resists offering answers. Are we, as the Abrahamic faiths would have it, born in sin and in need of forgiveness, as the show’s opening moment may suggest? Does that forgiveness come from a Messiah, or from submission, or are we still awaiting it? Or does that opening moment rather suggest that we have no choice but to leave the comfort of nonexistence for the vicissitudes of life.

Narratives ending in forgiveness and absolution are nice work if you can get it, but the show seems to remind us, as we are born with the performers at the beginning, that narratives are not inherent to our lives; they are imposed by us for our benefit. However, narratives are but one way of making sense of our existence. Soheil Parsa and company know this and convey it to us through the structure of the piece as well as the content, which resists hermeneutical interpretation as firmly as the mystery of faith resists reason: answers are inimical to both, and answers are inimical to this moving and provocative and exploratory piece of theatrical poetry. Take these stanzas, the company seems to say, and make of them what you will. Live with them as we must live with the mystery of forgiveness. The creators have invested years of their lives and the audience has invested ninety minutes and neither group are any closer to understanding the mystery, but ultimate understanding is not the point: the point is learning to live with the question.