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The testimony of a witness, yes. A play, no

Liza Balkan's Out The Window tells the story of witnessing the death of Otto Vass after an altercation with police in 2000

John Scully


Out the Window

Written and directed by Liza Balkan

Starring Julie Tepperman, David Ferry and R.H. Thomson

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At the Theatre Centre in Toronto

One summer night 12 years ago, Liza Balkan looked out the window of her west-end Toronto apartment and saw something that has haunted her ever since.

What the actor-director remembers seeing, in the wee hours of Aug. 9, 2000, were four cops brutally beating a man lying on the ground in a 7-Eleven parking lot. He was Otto Vass, a Hungarian-Canadian businessman with a history of bipolar disorder, who collapsed and died during the altercation. When Balkan later came forward as a witness, she wound up in the midst of a controversial court case which pitted her testimony against those of the officers involved.

Out the Window, premiering at the Theatre Centre, is Balkan's attempt to shape her experience into a documentary play. And, while it's been long in development, her piece couldn't be making its debut at a better time. Just last month, a Toronto police constable was charged with second-degree murder in a shooting death that occurred during a raid. And over Christmas there was the shocking death of Torontonian Oscar Bartholomew, allegedly caused by police beating in his native Grenada.

Balkan, however, still seems uncertain of how to deal with police violence in a theatrical context. Her self-directed show, presented as part of the Theatre Centre's biennial Free Fall festival of experimental work, is messy, badly structured and makes poor use of its multimedia elements. That it succeeds at all is largely due to the charisma of veteran actors David Ferry and R.H. Thomson, who are reliably entertaining as two lawyers on opposite sides of the case.

Balkan's text is constructed mostly from edited court transcripts and her own tape-recorded interviews. After Balkan herself introduces the play, Julie Tepperman takes over as her alter ego. The opening scene evokes that traumatic August night in a chaos of darkness and noise, out of which Tepperman's Balkan emerges to deliver her initial nervous statement to the police. From there, we go to the cool confines of a courtroom and the officers' 2003 trial. There, Ferry's smug, Woody Allen-quoting defence lawyer succeeds in casting doubt on Balkan's eyewitness account and his clients are acquitted of manslaughter.

The tables are turned in the second act (literally as well as figuratively – the play's main set pieces are two all-purpose tables). It focuses on the 2006 coroner's inquest into the exact cause of Vass's death. During that proceeding, Thomson's tenacious attorney relentlessly grills the four policemen once again about the events of Aug. 9. The tension is thick as they adamantly reiterate the claim that they were trying to subdue a violent Vass, who had been involved in a fight in the 7-Eleven. (The cops are expertly played by a rotating cast consisting of Brett Donahue, Andrew Ferguson, Zahir Gilani, Nadeem Umar-Khitab, Matt Murray and Jason Siks.) While Balkan sticks to her story, she gets full credit for fairness in including the officers' detailed defence. At the same time, though, other tragic cases involving the police and the mentally ill are referenced, while Thomson's lawyer brings up the question of a "blue code of silence" that keeps cops from squealing on one another.

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Was the Vass case such a conspiracy, or were the conflicting testimonies just a matter of misperception, as Ferry's lawyer insists? This is all thought-provoking stuff, but it's awkwardly presented. We could use some narration to tie the scenes together and give them context. We're not even shown a timeline of events until the end of the show. Trevor Schwellnus's scenography includes an upstage screen made to resemble a row of windows, but the video and projections displayed on it are are more showy than informative. Balkan could also make better use of audience participation. In one scene, six volunteers are invited to sit at a table and lunch with the lawyers for no discernible reason. It might have made more sense if they'd been encouraged to ask them questions. And the time it takes to clear away their dishes necessitates a six-minute interval that further fractures the pace of the performance.

Balkan has obviously amassed the material for a powerful play, but she should put it in the hands of another director. Her Window needs a clearer view.

Out the Window runs Mar. 19, 20 and 25.

S[ecial to The Globe and Mail

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