Montreal playwright Alice Abracen tackles the dangers of hateful ideas and political divides with ‘What Rough Beast’

Montreal playwright Alice Abracen’s latest production, What Rough Beast, is a politically charged piece that explores how opposing political beliefs divide families and communities.

The play, which is being presented at the Centaur Theatre in March, looks at what happens when two college students with radically different political beliefs collaborate on a guest lecture series—which alternates between right- and left-wing speakers each month—as a way to bridge the gap between their ideologies. 

The play features seven characters, one of whom is Michelle (played by Keren Roberts), the president of the Democrats club. Michelle is both Black and Jewish, making her a double target for some of the groups that she opposes.

In an interview with The CJN, Abracen implied that the characters’ religions (another character, Rafi, is Muslim) manifest in subtle ways. Both Michelle and Rafi are seen breaking their respective religions’ dietary restrictions, but the fundamental ethics and values of their practices show through in their actions. (She couldn’t reveal much more, without any spoilers.)

What Rough Beast was initially conceived during Abracen’s second year at the National Theatre School of Canada, where she studied playwriting. (It later premiered at the Monument-National, in 2018.)

The title comes from a line in “The Second Coming”, a poem written by Irish poet W.B. Yeats in 1919, about the devastation of post-war Europe and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

“I knew that I was really interested in exploring ideological polarization,” Abracen explained. “I was writing in the wake of the American election and Charlottesville, and I was seeing that all these elections were revealing the breadth of polarization.”

She described how many of her friends had to go home to families who voted for U.S. President Donald Trump.

“They were finding themselves extremely caught between everything they believed in and the families that they loved. There was a sense of unnavigable chasms opening between people. That dialogue had completely failed, the bipartisanship had failed.”

Abracen, passionate about creating dialogue on divisive issues through her work, was tackling these “existential questions” herself and knew it was a topic she wanted to explore.

When she first presented the play to the acting class at NTS, she braced herself for strong reactions to its controversial themes. However, Abracen was pleasantly surprised that they encouraged her to further humanize the characters on both ends of the political spectrum. She soon realized this type of thinking was key.

“If you don’t do that, it’s a way of avoiding the conversation with yourself that you could ever hold those ideas,” said Abracen. “It’s a way of negating responsibility. It’s a way of alienating yourself from any possibility that you could fall down that trap, that you could be radicalized, that you could be in the wrong.”

As a result, a major theme of the play became how changing one’s mind can be a strength, rather than a weakness. Abracen feels that when one is close-minded, it often indicates insecurity and an unwillingness to be vulnerable. This often is what causes the “chasms between people” she said.

In that vein, she hopes audiences will leave the theatre having discussions, asking questions and grappling with when they felt empathy versus when they felt distressed during moments of the play.

Abracen’s Holocaust-themed play, The Covenant, premiered at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Nov. 2022.

What Rough Beast runs from March 2 -11 at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, and is co-produced by Tantalus Theatre and Theatre Ouest End. For more info and to purchase tickets, visit the Centaur Theatre’s website.