A very timely play
examining free speech

What Rough Beast rankles today’s youth in a daring drama of that name

By Byron Toben

Updated March 10, 2023

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold…
and what rough beast, its hour come around at last,
slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

– W.B. Yeats The Second Coming (1919)

This iconic poem, beloved of English majors and set against the background of the Irish uprisings of the time, gained new adherents on September 11, 2001, with the mass murders by suicidal foreign airplane pilot trainees, bringing the collapse of Manhattan’s World Trade Center and generating the poem’s front page reproduction on a New York City Newspaper.

The world has never been the same since, as it accelerated the surveillance society, mass social society communication, alternative facts, and the increased polarization of opposing thoughts.

Pictures of that Rough Beast, as imagined by Yeats as the Egyptian Sphynx shaking off its sand, are at the end of this review. But first to the current play, which uses that phrase as its title.

WestmountMag colleague Irwin Rapaport recently posted a Q&A with playwright Alice Abracen and director Jessica Abdallah which stressed that theatre, like sports or raising a child, is a group effort, whether it takes a village or many supportive talents.

What Rough Beast

I first saw What Rough Beast as a National Theatre School production by its graduating Third Year Class in late April of 2018, posting my review on WestmountMag in early May of that year. Since then, it has undergone various tweaking in Boston and, I believe, in New York.

It was selected by the Centaur Theatre for part of its Brave New Looks productions in 2000 when COVID-19 forced its postponement until now. The interim has witnessed a Trump presidency and insurrection, and further controversy over what is permitted free speech.

As the seven discuss and argue, I remembered G. Bernard Shaws’ quip that the main problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

The catalyst event in the play is whether a controversial speaker should be allowed to speak on campus. Strong opinions lead to violence. The cast is seven strong: Thomas is Adam Capriold (actor, writer, director), Johnny is Aidan Cottreau (Concordia grad), Alyssa is Charlotte Dennis (National Theatre School, actor, writer), Rafi is Rahul Ghandhi (Concordia communications grad, Arts administration), Kevin is Simon Pelletier (Concordia grad, actor, playwright, translator), Michelle is Karen Roberts (Dawson grad, appeared with Black Theatre Workshop and Geordie), and Marlene is Jennifer Roberts (National Theatre School grad). As the seven discuss and argue, I remembered G. Bernard Shaws’ quip that the main problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

The young Ms. Abracen is working the theatre of ideas exemplified by my faves: Shaw, Brecht, Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill and others. I am eager to see her next creation, presumably to be mounted by Ouest End Productions (started by Abracen, her mom playwright Ann Lambert, actor Laura Mitchell and Danielle Szydlowski. The current show was in association with Tantalus Productions.)

The Questioner of the Sphynx

The Questioner of the Sphinx – Image: Elihu Vedder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh yes, as mentioned above, here is Yeat’s sphynx Rough Beast preparing to slouch.

What Rough Beast runs at the Centaur until March 11.


Images: Emelia Hellman

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Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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