Taking a Bite of Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel  via The Biting School.

Cain and Abel via The Biting School.

This weekend the story of brothers Cain and Abel is told to us on the stage of The Firehall Arts Centre through another pair of brothers, Arash and Aryo Khakpour. Together, the Khakpours are The Biting School, a company self-described as a ‘meeting ground for dance, theatre and performance art’.

The pleasure of seeing brothers interpret and perform brothers is a particular one, challenging the audience to decipher where the performer’s relationship ends and that of their characters begins. The piece, ‘Cain and Abel’ is filled with physical and intellectual games which take place in front of a clothesline; a backdrop of domesticity. The brothers don’t seem to have explicit chores to accomplish, but rather rituals of inhabiting each other’s space. Although raw in its energy, these rituals did not quite read as full embodiment of their biblical inspirations. Oscillating between literal gesture —the expression of a gun with their hands—and more abstract provocations—a bucket of rocks strewn across the floor— the Khakpours’ prescription of movement was the driver of the score, rather than the emotional depth of turmoil depicted in the story of Genesis. Games, which ought to have been left up to chance, seemed to have had a predetermined outcome.  

The two men share a talent for embodied sound, using the entirety of their mouths (tongues included) to project visceral and many times primal noises. These sounds, together with a score by Alex Mah, attempt to create an environment which is unfortunately detracted from by the theater it is contained in. The wings, the marley floor, the stage lights do not disappear, hindering the piece’s ability to achieve the intensity of a landscape it deserves. However, the two performers’ stage presence is slightly intoxicating—giving them the ability to carry the show nonetheless.   

Midway through the piece, Cain and Abel hang up their ‘male’ costumes and exchange them for ‘women's’ maid costumes. Repeating many of the movements from their time as brothers, the now-sisters begin to incorporate real domestic chores, scrubbing the stage floor with plastic-gloved hands. The fact that the sisters, characters from Jean Genet’s play The Maids, are depictions of women by male performers as written by a male playwright is a challenging reality that The Biting School has begun to approach, but has not fully sorted through. In the play, the sisters spend time impersonating their authoritative Mistress while dressing themselves in her clothes. As the story goes, the sisters realize revenge by metaphorically murdering their Mistress.

There is a third character in both the stories of Cain and Abel and that of The Maids: God and the Mistress, respectively. The power dynamics surrounding the third character, and how it infects the siblings’ relationship to one another, is one steeped in historical gender stereotypes. At the talk-back after the show, the Khakpour brothers stated their wish to embrace stereotypes and move past them. An interesting, yet extremely difficult, proposition.     

The piece as a whole seems a draft of a larger thesis, where The Biting School is attempting to explore their physical, academic, and performance practices. ‘Cain and Abel’ is a brave expedition into the thick forest of biblical metaphor, lesson, history, and critique. It certainly leaves you thinking, but also slightly confused by what the creators are trying to say.   

Cain and Abel runs at the Firehall Arts Centre until October 6th. Tickets and more info can be found here.