Out of Town
Soulpepper Theatre’s English Speaks Volumes With Humor and Pain
“Three inches taller, when I speak English,” she says, quite clearly and with a surprised certainty, laying down some of the many complicated structurings that riddle themselves through Soulpepper Theatre’s English. Co-produced with Segal Centre, the production gives us a timely glimpse into something complex, special, and definitely superb as it patiently unpacks meaning in language and about knowing who you are by the words you speak. Playwright Sanaz Toossi (Wish You Were Here) has crafted a brilliantly complex tale, one that I was lucky enough to see in NYC at the Atlantic Theatre Company, that maps out frustrations and the deep humanistic consequences that come when trying to ingest a new language into our minds, our hearts, and into our souls. Resonating deeply, the stories told here, thanks to the diligent co-direction of both Guillermo Verdecchia (Tarragon’s The Jungle) and set designer Anahita Dehbonehie (Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls…), dig deep into the ideas of acceptance, of belonging, and around connection, finding honor and an undeniable dissociation in the difficult framework of a new complex language.
Playing out with a wise composition of humor and pain on a stark set by Dehbonehie projecting other world complexities through a well-placed video-screened window, thanks to the video support of Samay Arcentales Cajas (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes), with strong costuming by Niloufar Ziaee (Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls…), lighting by Tim Rodrigues (Segal’s Marjorie Prime), and sound by Rob Denton (Segal’s Small Mouth Sounds), the play finds its force in its interconnected wit and competitive, investigative spirit. The action and interactions mostly take place in a bland classroom where four students have come together, somewhere in Karaj, a large suburb of Tehran, Iran to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL). But what transpires here is anything but bland. It is alive with humanistic honest interactions and conflict that resonate on more levels than we can fathom in just one viewing.
Attending to the spring of 2009, English surges forth in a quick one-act structure, with no recess for the overwhelmed. It unpacks the personal speed bumps for each of these four willing participants who have gathered together determined to pass the difficult test that will, hopefully, usher them into a new chapter in life. Instructed with a kind force by their teacher, Marjan, played with an empathetic edge by Ghazal Partou (“You Won’t See Winter“), the students, each with their own structural imbalance, find engagement and conflict within those four walls, particularly as Marjan insists that they inadvertently open themselves up to the vulnerability of only speaking English in class. A frustrating stance, one that I personally know all too well from years of unsuccessfully trying to learn French, and then Spanish and Italian in college and in private tutoring, but the stance clearly pushes the engine forward within an accurate ideal, even if it sometimes feels to them like punishment and frustration.
Marjan is a well-formed married woman who once lived in England and has returned to Iran to live with her husband. She puts out solidness when she teaches a small ‘English as a Second Language’ class, this time to the four adults we come to know. But her faith is cracking. Who is she, if her proficiency fades into the background streets outside the window? Speaking English, we are told, doesn’t elicit the feeling of poetry, not like Farsi, which the characters do slip into every so often. And although the play is written in English, we are made conscious in the most elegant of ways whenever the language shifts from English to their primary. It’s a beautifully constructed and performed angle that subtly emphasizes the exploration and digestion of what it means to speak out and be understood. And be seen as the person you really are.
When the students struggle with their English, and they do, we hear the tense hesitation and the accent, but when “Farsi is winning” and they switch to their native tongue, totally against the wishes of their teacher, their real selves are cleverly exposed, and their whole structure and stance change. The strongest of the bunch, or should I say the most conflicted and competitive, is Elham, a hopeful med school student played intensely by Ghazal Azarbad (Soulpepper’s The Seagull). She can’t help herself. It’s as if she has to lash out at everyone to hold her place and position in the room and in life. She’s edgy and hard to like, although in the way Azarbad portrays her with such secretive compassion, we can’t help but feel for her and want her to have a win.
nother who seems to have an interior life that is working hard to stay as secret as possible is the complex and rigid Roya, played stoically by the difficult-to-read Banafsheh Taherian (Canadian Stage’s The Only Possible Way). Her estranged son has emigrated to Canada and learning English is the strongly suggested requirement needed so that she might be given the permission to see and know her granddaughter. She rails, in her own quiet manner, fuming that it is “our mothers who get to name us, not foreigners,” yet, even though we connect to her pain, there is something that gets in the way of the meltdown, which in turn keeps us a bit removed from her sad anger and defiant retreat at the very moment we, and this play, needs it to be powerful and heart-breaking.
The youngest and by far the most compassionate and engaging is the smart and kind Goli, tenderly and delicately portrayed by the excellent Aylin Oyan Salahshoor (Theatre Centre’s Swim Team), who finds a way to connect to us all as she works hard to unlock a more promising future. There is another, and his position in the class is more fascinatingly complex and deceptive. Omid, portrayed well by Sepehr Reybod (Stratford’s Richard III), is obviously more advanced in his ability and seems to be holding a secret of his own close to his chest. He speaks English very well, but it is his flirtation with the teacher that sets alarm bells ringing. He gives off a feeling that is somewhat charming but, unfortunately for the play, also not that emotionally connecting. It’s physically present, in the Hollywood rom-com approach, mirrored in the movie watching done to take in the sound of the language, but it never feels soulful, nor organic, in both Reybod’s Omid or Partou’s Marjan. And her retreat and response is too brisk, and obvious, faltering inside the construct of subtlety. And still, we can’t quite figure him out, that is until it all gets thrown out into the center, and unravels before everyone’s eyes.
The co-directors find the energy and a pace that works, bridging the gaps and unearthing the undercurrents that exist deep inside identity. “I lose my mind when speaking English,” Etham states, with a combination of frustration and disgust. The big questions of assimilation and culture are stamped with authentic singularity on the outcome of a pass-or-fail test. Personal secrets are held close, but laid out for them all to see within those lessons. The characters and their subtleties deliver the meditation with a clear tender ease, producing a clever production of an insightful play, even as the climax isn’t as emotionally sharp as one could hope for. But the moments do sing with triumph, passing with some pretty high marks for its purposeful portrayal of language and identity.
The play couldn’t have come to Toronto at a more timely and important moment, considering all that is happening in Iran, Women’s rights protests have flared up, mainly because of the murder of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the Islamic Republic, and in turn, has sparked worldwide attention and concern. English at Soulpepper unearths layers upon layers of complex despair and frustration, in the way people struggle to learn language, and what it means to the identity and self-worth that their language gives them. Deep inside the sparse formulation of Dehbonehie and Verdecchia’s determined production of Toossi’s powerful and transporting play is an enigmatic construct around heritage and hope. It connects and engages, even if I wished for a bigger emotional punch from Roya, and the flirtation, telling a tale that is relevant and needed.
Soulpepper Theatre‘s English, written by Sanaz Toossi, is currently playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 9.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
The Olivier Awards Return
Celebrate the very best in British theatre in a star-studded evening as the Olivier Awards return to the Royal Albert Hall on April 2nd.
Three-time Olivier Award nominee & Primetime Emmy winner, Hannah Waddingham will be hosting the awards for the first time.
The event will feature performances from all of the Best New Musical nominees, including The Band’s Visit, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Sylvia and Tammy Faye. Also performing will be Oklahoma! and Sister Act, both nominated for the Best Musical Revival award, as well as Disney’s Newsies, which has been nominated for Matt Cole’s choreography.
The multi-Olivier Award winner The Book of Mormon, will be performing to mark its ten-year anniversary in the West End. Additionally, special award winner Arlene Philips will be honored with a tribute from the cast of Grease.
The ceremony will be broadcast live on Magic Radio from 6pm with Ruthie Henshall and Alice Arnold hosting.
The highlights program will also be aired on ITV1 and ITVX at 10:15 pm in the UK and via Official London Theatre’s YouTube channel elsewhere.
And the nominees are:
Out of Town
The Unpacking of the First Métis Man of Odesa, An Interview
Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNA, Two People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.
During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.
Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?
Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having their son during the pandemic. The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.
What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?
For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process. Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.
The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.
Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?
We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play. We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.
Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!
Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…
We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months. There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft. Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.
What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?
For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art. Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.
For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years. The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.
The most rewarding?
Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine. Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.
What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?
We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto. We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine. And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.
First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit theatrecentre.org/event/first-metis-man-of-odesa/
Florence Welch, Martyna Majok, Rachel Chavkin and More On New Musical Gatsby Coming To A.R.T
Florence Welch Photo by De Wilde
Producers Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, Jordan Roth, and American Repertory Theater(A.R.T.) at Harvard University announced today that Gatsby, a brand-new musical stage adaptation of the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, will make its highly anticipated World Premiere at A.R.T. in 2024, and will be directed by Tony Award® winner Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.
Gatsby will feature music by Florence Welch, the Grammy Award-nominated international rock star of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, the Oscar and Grammy Award nominee, with lyrics by Ms. Welch, and a book by Pulitzer Prize® winner Martyna Majok.
Gatsby will be produced at American Repertory Theater by special arrangement with Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, and Jordan Roth, in association with Robert Fox. Hannah Giannoulis serves as co-producer.
American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director; Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Executive Director) at Harvard University produces groundbreaking work to catalyze dialogue and transformation. Tony Award-winning and nominated productions include Jagged Little Pill; Waitress; Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; All the Way; The Glass Menagerie; Pippin; Once; and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Its revival of 1776, a co-production with Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently touring nationally. Learn more at AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.
Additional Gatsby news will be announced soon.
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