Bhopal related the story of the industrial accident that happened in Bhopal in 1984, when the Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded. The story started before the explosion took place, and wound its way through a variety of different characters: a Canadian scientist imprisoned for exposing the company, the diplomat trying to negotiate her release, and the head of the Indian branch of Union Carbide.
First thing I have to mention is that the set was gorgeous. Sets have become increasingly minimalistic in theatre, which, though interesting at first, gets a bit boring after a while. But not Bhopal. The stage was covered in a lush variety of colors and textures. Wood stools contrasted with cement blocks contrasted with white lace contrasted with colorful fabric. It was abundant without being distracting, and it was versatile enough to evoke the slum, prison, or office as need be. The music that wove itself into the piece was, like the set, abundant without being distracting.
On the other hand,Bhopal fell into a couple of traps that plays of this nature tend to fall into. For one thing, almost all of the characters except our hero, Sonya Labonte (Stéphanie Breton), seemed either stupid or evil. And I don’t mean subtly evil as human beings sometimes are in the intricate labyrinth of their souls. I mean all out, cartoon villain, mua-ha-ha evil. Our hero, on the other hand, shook her fist, railed, and ground her teeth. And honestly, the actress was not that good at it. She really came into her own when playing the hard, cold scientist trying to get through to her subjects, but she just couldn’t pull off righteous anger without seeming like she was having a tantrum.
This lack of subtlety was prevalent throughout the play. There was a feeling that it was trying to drive home the fact that the disaster was horrific, trying to force its audience to feel horrified with over-the-top characters and a barrage of pained wailing. That is not the best way of reaching an audience – in fact, the over-the-top drama is distracting from really absorbing the horror.
Things were better in the second half, especially when the CEO of Union Carbide (Guy Sprung), the head of the India branch (Ivan Smith) and the Indian minister were all in one room, post-disaster. It was partly because the CEO really jumped the shark on evil so that all characters up to that point paled in comparison, and partly because their discussion revealed so much on why the disaster had happened, and on how the death figures were being juggled.
All in all, Bhopal was a mixed bag, but I was glad I went. Despite its shortcomings, I did learn a lot about what is known as the greatest industrial disaster of all time.
Bhopal is playing at the Segal Center (5170 St. Catherine) until Feb, 2, 2014. $15. Most shows at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.