Brotherly relationship

Photo by Sepehr Samimi

Directed and performed by Aryo and Arash Khakpour, Cain and Abel is a
physical, movement-heavy performance inspired by the biblical story.

The show, set to perform at the Firehall Arts Centre from October 3–6, takes a look at our society through the lens of the rivalry and violence between the most famous pair of brothers in western society.

A look at brotherhood

The development of Cain and Abel first began in 2013 when Aryo and Arash Khakpour, brothers and co-founders of the performance company The Biting School, were commissioned to create a piece to be performed in Harbour Green Park next to a statue of a king and a queen.

“We thought [the statue] could be seen as Adam and Eve,” says Aryo, “and so, since we are brothers, we decided to make a 10-minute piece about Cain and Abel. From there we performed it at other festivals, and it became a 20-minute piece, a 30-minute piece and now a 60-minute piece.”

Given their relationship, Aryo and Arash were interested in looking into how exactly brotherhood works. And they don’t see its definition as limited to a nuclear family, but rather expanding to cover everyone on the planet.

“Every other human being is your brother and sister,” says Arash, “so using the Cain and Abel story made a lot of sense, as it is such an important story in the Bible. It deals with the first murder, how we learned to deal with things through violence, and how the person who killed his brother built the first civilization. The building of civilizations came from killing our brothers.”

While that description makes the show sound very dark and violent, there are other forces at play. There are humorous moments mixed in throughout, with elements of clowning added in as well. It’s the Khakpour brothers’ way of creating a more well-rounded show, with the blend of styles leading even the two of them to disagree as to what genre to classify the piece.

“I think it’s theatre,” says Aryo, “Arash thinks it’s dance. The first half is non-verbal, gesture-based and movement-based, which makes it dance, but it’s also very character-driven, and that makes it theatre.”

A unique twist

Brothers examine sibling violence in movement-heavy performance | Photo by Sepehr Samimi

Whatever the genre, the goal for Cain and Abel is not just to entertain the audience, but also to challenge them in a way. This is evident in the second half of the show, where Aryo and Arash switch from the masculine battle of two brothers to a side of the story that’s not nearly as prominent: the female side.

“We just felt the absence of women,” says Aryo. “In the story the whole world is built by a man, the two brothers are men, and we rarely hear anything about the women. There’s only a little bit about the sisters, and most people don’t even remember their names.”

Drawing inspiration from The Maids, a play by French dramatist Jean Genet, the second act of the show looks at the story of Cain and Abel as if they were sisters. It’s an unusual twist, and the Khakpours know full well the potential pitfalls of making a dramatic choice like this.

“One of our major challenges is representing the two females as two males,” says Aryo, “and all of the politics and challenges that come with that. We consider ourselves feminists, and care about that, but we also don’t want to pretend this is a social activist piece. We do, however, want to be provocative.”

That desire for the show to be provocative is echoed by Arash, who in fact relishes this aspect of the show.

“I think what we are approaching is controversial and can be read in a very wrong or negative way,” he says, “which made me want to pursue it. We can use this to allow people to judge us, question us and have a conversation about it. It’s about the conversation, after the statement being made. The statement being the performance itself.”

Wanting the audience to feel a level of discomfort might seem to run counter to what a show would normally aim to do, but the brothers see it as a way for people to open up and truly gain something from the experience.

“It’s very unlikely for us to learn a lot in too much comfort,” says Arash. “In disagreement is when we can say, “I’m thinking this”, or, “why are you thinking this?”, and if I’m open enough to show up and be willing to change my mind about something, that’s when we can truly change and lead to more tolerance.”

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