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'Migraaaants: There's Too Many People on this Damn Boat' by Matei Visniec with translation by Nick Adwe

Now onstage at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto

Credit: Zahra Maleki. Pictured: Ahmad Meree and ensemble

Joe Szekeres

“Toronto premiere delves into a comical and terrifying look at newcomers to a supposed land of freedom.”

Billed as a ‘dark comedy,’ Matei Visniec’s play focuses on the dangerous journey of African and Middle Eastern refugees to Europe. From an overcrowded boat and then to an unknown uncertainty about whether these individuals will be welcomed in their new land, this Toronto premiere explores what director Siavash Shabanpour calls “the unbreakable human spirit within the refugee narrative and gives audiences a chance to connect with the people beyond the headlines.”

Under Shabanpour’s strong direction, the ensemble delivers heartbreaking performances inspired by the real stories of refugees who have fled war-ravaged environments. Shabanpour uses as much space as possible on the Passe Muraille stage and the various levels. The emotional impact is palpably strong when the action is on the floor; however, one scene between President (Garrett Mallory Scott) and a Public Relations Coach (Henry Oswald Pierson) takes place on the second level, relatively high up. This scene details the importance of using the ‘politically’ correct word regarding those who flee their homeland. Is immigrant to be used? Migrant? Refugee? The discussion piqued my attention; thankfully, Scott and Pierson can be heard. However, this scene didn’t have as strong of an impact personally because I felt far removed from the action physically.

For the most part, Shabanpour’s genuine compassion in his direction allows the audience to see the struggles, hopes and fears these migrants have faced and will continue to face in their new lands.

That strong sense of fear remains categorically palpable from the seventeen-member ensemble cast on the Passe Muraille main stage when the action occurs floor level.

The production creative team has made solid choices. Designer Kadi Badiou has wisely selected an empty stage at the top of the show where the audience hears lapping water against a shore thanks to Victoria Gallant’s sound design. On the floor level, there is a riser which resembles a catwalk from a fashion show. The audience sits left and right on this riser, which becomes a significant focal point when the performance begins. Sometimes, the multi-media production immerses the audience right in the reactions and responses of the characters. Designer Duncan Appleton uses some visually striking and effective projections. Tessa Bourchier’s various colours and sizes in the costumes nicely delineate and identify the multiple characters in the mosaic of stories.

Playwright Visniec smartly incorporates and combines both dark humour and harsh reality to showcase the continued sense of fear these migrants have had and will have to continue to face wherever they will head.
At times, this juxtaposition makes for good theatre.

We’re first introduced to Boss (Ahmad Meree) when the lights go down. Boss will help these individuals escape to Europe, but they must listen carefully to him and follow his strict conditions for travelling. His ‘goons’ who stand behind him are to ensure those in the audience are listening. Meree is powerfully in control at this moment. There’s no messing with Boss, and Meree demands immediate focus and attention on him. It was an incredibly dominant moment that made me hold my breath, wondering what might happen if any of these individuals got out of line.

It does happen later. And again, Meree remains a compelling force in how he ‘punishes’ the individual who disregards instructions.

An ‘ordinary’ Balkan couple (Andrew Chown and Mahsa Ershadifar) try to make sense of this conflict around them. He comes home from work while she is busily preparing their evening meal. They snap at each other, rightly so, because the world they know remains tense. Without spoiling the dramatic impact, Chown and Ershadifar subtly and cleverly show how they will respond to the events surrounding them.

A haunting moment comes from Parastoo Amanzadeh’s still performance as the young boy Elihu who will sell his body parts and limbs as capital for his family. I felt chills down my spine as it must be seen live to experience the full emotions.

In a rather dark, comical turn of events, Keely Krall and Shannon Pitre become Shopping Channel spokespersons for a surveillance device that can instantly kill people. A few moments later, the two again become fashionista models for a barbed wire costume.

Final Comments: One thing still puzzles me about the production. I don’t understand why the play's title is spelled as it is. The sentence after the title is harsh and cruel. Nevertheless, that harshness and cruelty remains issues newcomers have felt leaving their homeland.

‘Migraaaants’ is another essential story to experience. It’s plausible and believable.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no interval/intermission.

The production runs until January 28 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For tickets: call 416-504-7529 or visit

MIGRAAAANTS: There’s Too Many People on this Damn Boat by Matei Visniec with translation by Nick Awde

Produced by two thousand feet up theatre company
Directed by Siavash Shabanpour
Set Designer: Kadi Badiou
Costume Designer: Tessa Bourchier
Lighting and Projections Designer: Duncan Appleton
Sound Designer: Victoria Gallant
Composer: Nariman Eskandari
Stage Manager: Daniela Olmos

Performers: Jamar Adams-Thompson, Parastoo Amanzadeh, Jeffrey Auminio-Mesidor, Jeysa Caridad, Andrew Chown, Mahsa Ershadifar, Silvana Herrera, Lean Jafari, Eric Kinsella, Keely Krall, Ahmed Meree, Daniel Motaharzadeh, Henry Oswald Peirson, Shannon Pitre, Henrique Santsper, Garrett Mallory Scott, Jona Villa

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