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Tackling social problems through artistic expression

When the MOTUS O Dance Theatre first brought their play to Waterloo Region more than 14 years ago, they struck a chord in the community.

Now artistic directors James and Cynthia Croker and Jack Langenhuizen are bringing The Shunning back to kick off a new season at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener. The play is a reconstruction of a book of poetry, later a theatre production, by playwright and author Patrick Friesen.

A poster for the play depicting Jack Langenhuizen as Peter being shunned by his community. [submitted]
“About 18 years ago we actually read the book of poetry. We approached him and we said we really love the language and that we can see it being preformed as a dance piece,” said James Croker.

The Shunning is a story of a Mennonite farmer who is shunned by his community for questioning its doctrines. In order for him to be brought back into the fold of his family he must ask forgiveness of the authorities or remain alone. As his relationships disintegrate he wants to express his personal views while struggling with life outside of the order and everything he knows.

First produced for the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 16 years ago, the Motus O adaptation is all about representing the story through interpretive dance, video and sparse words, Croker said.

When the play came to Kitchener a couple of years after the big city debut, it was presented with a strong response from a community that lives side by side with Mennonite culture.

“Because of the close relationship people have to the Mennonite community, we had at least half a dozen people after the performance come up to us and say ‘my uncle was shunned’ or ‘my great grandfather was shunned’ and some of them had really quite terrible stories and some had great stories,” he explained.

The play is made up of six performers and explores the intricacies of community life and individualism.

“It’s certainly not just religious. It’s human dynamics at work, it’s Lord of the Flies all over again; groups suddenly congregate around an idea and then pick on an individual. It can be business, it can be school, it can be bullying. It’s when a group decides a person isn’t acceptable and rather than releasing them from the group they crush them,” he added.

In this case the group chose to show the complexities of the subjects at hand through dance.

In one scene, Croker notes, the shunned farmer Peter and his wife are at odds with each other, neither one knowing why. Rather than having the characters act out the scene through speech, the couple dances while never really connecting.

“Because we are dealing with subtleties within a religious community, I don’t think we’ll get any Old Order Mennonites coming out to the show. And we’re asking people to totally suspend their disbelief because we’re Mennonites dancing,” he said of the performance.

“But what we’re hoping to do is sort of take it so far out there that people begin to look at the issues of humanity and how we treat people.”

Part of the message is that many people who are shunned do not have the means to live outside of their communities and though the play fictional, part of Friesen’s intent was to bring many issues to the forefront with the tragic story of this Mennonite farmer.

“As one critic said to us, they felt empathy for everybody. It’s a wonderful poetic piece, in the sense of unraveling the layers of community and individuality,” said Croker.

The Shunning runs Friday and Saturday (7:30 p.m.).


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