Cesare Scarpone and Junita Thiessen in the Clever Bird Entertainment production of Beirut. Photo by Amanda Waschuk.
Cesare Scarpone and Junita Thiessen in the Clever Bird Entertainment production of Beirut. Photo by Amanda Waschuk.

With television already embracing the pandemic with shows like Connecting, Social Distance, and even The Connors, it is perhaps inevitable someone would tackle the subject on stage.

Clever Bird Entertainment is about to do just that with Alan Bowne’s Beirut, set to play Granville Island’s Performance Works as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival’s upcoming third wave of programming.

And while Bowne’s gritty and graphic 1983 drama deals in a different pandemic and not the Coronavirus, the big question remains: are local audiences ready for a story of love in a pandemic?

According to director Louisa Phung and the play’s two principal actors Junita Thiessen and Cesare Scarpone, they are.

With Beirut chosen as part of the Fringe’s dramatic play series long before the current pandemic hit, Phung says the timeliness is coincidental and while it uses the AIDS pandemic as inspiration, it is not its primary focus.

“The pandemic is the catalyst of the show and something that paints everything that happens, but it’s not a pandemic play,” she says. “It is a play about love. It is about these two characters who are fighting for life and love.”

“It is about a heterosexual couple during the AIDS epidemic, and at the time it was written would have been a really brave choice to make because back then there was this idea that AIDS only applied to gay men,” adds Thiessen.

"Ironically, COVID made things better for us as we have all these great people working with us who would normally be working on other projects." - Louisa Phung
“Ironically, COVID made things better for us as we have all these great people working with us who would normally be working on other projects.” – Louisa Phung.

For Scarpone, the appeal comes from the raw, wild and unfettered humanity in the play’s two central characters.

“They are caged animals, and you get to see that,” he says. “Especially in this pandemic, everyone wants to be wild and free, and yet we are so inhibited in the world in so many ways right now. To be able to do that and to show people is really exciting.”

Set in an apocalyptic future, Beirut is the story of Torch, a young man quarantined in a dark, squalid room on the Lower East Side of New York City after testing positive for a nameless, sexually transmitted disease. In his grimy cell, which the locals refer to as Beirut, he passes the time alone, forbidden from contact with the outside world. Making the dangerous journey across the quarantine line, Torch’s girlfriend Blue joins him. As he tries to keep her at room’s length, over the play’s 70-minutes, the two argue about sex and death while Torch continues to plead with her to leave.

“It gives you a taste or reminder of what we have been missing in humanity and intimacy in all forms during the pandemic,” says Scarpone. “It will remind you of your humanity.”

“They reveal what it means to be alive and to embrace the light,” adds Thiessen. “As with COVID, it mirrors this idea that life is worth living, and there is still passion in this world.”

For those who are perhaps not quite ready for a play about a pandemic, the Vancouver Fringe will also present a trio of other shows during its third mini-festival.

In Mairy Beam’s docudrama Irreparable Harm? A Tale of the Trans Mountain Resistance, Indigenous and settler activists shine on a light on the justice system based on transcripts from the BC Supreme court trial of activists opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

In TrudeauMania, Daniel K. McLeod takes audiences on a musical trip through the life of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and in Digital Fracture: Voices, Theatre Terrific looks to draw us away from the screen and to transition into deeper self-awareness and connection.

Beirut plays as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival’s third mini-festival at Granville Island’s Performance Works (1218 Cartwright St, Vancouver) from October 29 through November 8. Visit vancouverfringe.com for tickets and information.