Who: Human Cargo, Presented by The Socrates Project
What: The Runner
Where: Black Box Theatre, McMaster University (Main Floor, L.R. Wilson Hall, 1280 Main Street West)
When: September 19-21 and September 26-28 at 7:30pm, September 22 at 1:30pm
Tickets: $15 General Admission; $5 Students
More Information or To Buy Tickets: https://socrates.mcmaster.ca/events/the-runner/

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And the better the intentions, the longer the road may be. In Human Cargo Theatre’s The Runner, the audience is introduced to its lone character, Jacob, who works for Z.A.K.A., an organization whose main task is to gather the body parts and blood of victims of terrorist attacks in Israel and around the world in order to ensure (as the character explains) that those of the Jewish faith are “buried whole.”

In the introductory moments of the production, Jacob (Gord Rand) emerges from the shadows. Although the set is a simple treadmill on a raised platform, and the lighting is minimal, Rand succeeds in creating an air of confusion as he repeatedly asks “Why can’t I remember what’s happened to me?” This is aided by sound distortion of his voice, so that although the audience is aware of where they are, there is a sense of disorientation, aided by the fog that settled in the theatre prior to the show’s start.

Jacob reveals that he has found a dead Israeli soldier and a teenage Arab girl who has been shot. Between the two are a knife. He has no reason to believe that the young girl is responsible for the soldier’s death and makes the decision to try to save her life instead of collecting the remains of the dead soldier. This split second decision becomes the impetus for everything else that occurs in the production, as spectators, family, colleagues and Jacob himself react to this decision- and whether it was the right one or not. Gillian Gallow’s set of a simple treadmill (on which Rand performs for the entire show) does well to remind the audience not only of Jacob’s solo journey to find inner peace, but of the lack of control around Jacob- and all of us- as we progress to our eventual fates.

The script does not move forward in a linear fashion; rather, Jacob recounts critical moments in the subsequent days and in his past that remind the audience of his humanity; the reaction of his mother and colleagues; his work as a ZAKA member abroad; a confrontation with his brother; an experience at a sex club. The treadmill slowly speeds up in all these scenes as Jacob moves towards an emotional and mental climax, and the intensity of the treadmill audibly grows under Jacob’s voice. As the climax occurs, the audience and Jacob return to a central scene, where Jacob continues to struggle to remember where he is and what has happened. Underneath the sound of the treadmill and Jacob’s voice is the sound of a lone instrument overseen by composer and sound designer Alexander MacSween, who revels in the simplicity of ensuring the audience can hear how the music and sounds echoes Jacob’s heartbeat and fear.

As the solo actor in this piece, Rand is skillfully directed and ably conveys the physical and mental exhaustion of Jacob, while simultaneously portraying a character who is honestly working to “do no harm.” However, the interpretation of these words is purposefully left open in a well-written script by playwright Christopher Morris, who ensures the audience can draw quick connections to the internal biases that Jacob has been raised to uphold through his life and his own personal struggle to break free. However, Jacob draws no firm conclusions and nothing is ever resolved; his sense of his actions are left as “grey areas,” well-framed against the black and white starkness of the lighting design created by Bonnie Beecher who emphasizes Jacob’s solo journey as the production’s conclusion reveal where Jacob is and why.   

Morris’ script is also full of graphic imagery that is difficult to forget. Although no content warning is needed on the script, a warning should have been given to audience members regarding the use of strobe lights during the performance. These lights occur multiple times throughout the production, and while they work to give the audience a sense of Jacob’s inner turmoil and mental anguish, without a warning, the repeated strobe lights can become overwhelming, particularly to an audience sitting in such close proximity as those in the Black Box Theatre of L.R. Wilson Hall. While this lack of warning may have been purposeful to ensure the audience could experience a sense of Jacob’s disorientation and distress, it could potentially create a health and safety risk for some patrons.

At seventy-minutes in length (no intermission), The Runner is a compact production that carefully navigates parts of the Israeli-Arab conflict without attempting to be overly political. Instead, it focuses on a single person who tries to find the humanity in others while holding onto his own in a single situation that can so easily be misinterpreted. And just as the journey is emotionally-exhausting for Jacob, the production is emotional for audience members who are left to sort through the questions raised by The Runner’s content and the hope that there is always one person who will believe that there is good in everyone, regardless of the crisis and questions at hand.

The Runner feature photo courtesy of The Socrates Project (credit Graham Isador)

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