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Gonzo - not a summer camp

Gonzo
Written and directed by Gordon Pascoe
Norman Rothstein Theatre
Nov 1 - 12, 2006

VANCOUVER, BC: A catalogue of horrors due to man's inhumanity to man would start in prehistoric times and continue into the unforeseeable future. Despite slogans like "lest we forget" and "never again", evil continues to thrive. Yet even in the darkest of circumstances some people are able to retain their humanity and not be drawn into perpetuating the cruelty they see all around them. In "Gonzo", Gordon Pascoe pays tribute to one such man, a Japanese guard in the prison camp where Pascoe lived during World War II.

In December 1941 after Pearl Harbour was attacked, European and American ex-patriots living in the international city of Shanghai, China were interned by the occupying Japanese forces. The men were detained in Civilian Internment Centres and separate centres were set up for the women and children. As a young boy in Shanghai during this time, Pascoe was imprisoned in a civilian internment camp, "Ash Camp", a prison camp for women expatriates and their children.

Pascoe frames the play through the memories of the narrator. Ailing in hospital sixty years after his time in the camp, he remembers Ash Camp and wonders what happened to Gonzo. Although we never learn what happened to him his fate and that of his family is implied by the revelation that Gonzo's home town is Nagasaki.

This story of Ash Camp begins with the arrival of Evelyn Pascoe and young Gordon, her son. Life in the camp is illustrated through a series of vignettes in which the women trade cigarettes for malaria medication, receive Red Cross parcels, try to keep up the education of their children and wait for the passes that will give them visitation rights at the camp where their husbands are detained. We see Gonzo sharing family photographs, trying to learn English, and bringing young Gordon safely back after he has slid out under a gap in the fence. We also see how important he has become to the women of Ash Camp when it appears that he has been taken away for possible torture in retribution for his gentle treatment of the prisoners.

This play has a lot of potential. There is certainly a powerful story to be told but as it is, the tensions are not fully realized. For example despite some bad things that happen such as the death of two of the husbands, there was no real sense of the extreme deprivation these people suffered. I realize that the writer was trying to show how the women kept their sprits up and handled their captivity with grace and bravery but it felt more as if they were in a poorly equipped summer camp than a prison camp.

Simon Hayama did a great job conveying the essential decency that made the Japanese schoolteacher turned prison guard into a protector rather than a jailor of these women. Christina Jastrzembska was officious yet vulnerable as Conway-Smith, the hut representative. I enjoyed the sweet voices of the women, Freda Brown (Laura di Cicco), Evelyn Pascoe (Deanna Overland), Anna Jones (Helen Martin), Gala Holtam (Lauren Lange) and Jenny Moore (Melanie Walden) in the musical bits. Hamish Cameron as Narrator and second guard and Troy Young as Bill rounded out the adult cast and there were six children enthusiastically playing young Gordon and five young girls.

The essence of this story is about one man's humanity in the face of terrible circumstances. With some strong dramaturgical work it could become a powerful and moving play. I really hope that Pascoe will take it further.