Iranian students, intimate Lear and biting cultural satire: this week in Toronto theatre

Reviews of English, The Tragedy of King Lear and Redbone Coonhound, plus a look at my first month as an independent theatre blogger

Iranian students, intimate Lear and biting cultural satire: this week in Toronto theatre
Ghazal Azarbad (left), Ghazal Partou and Aylin Oyan Salahshoor practice their English in Sanaz Toossi's funny and poignant new play. Photo by Dahlia Katz

As anyone who attends a lot of Toronto theatre will tell you, there are usually three or four weeks a year jam-packed with openings. This past period was one of those weeks, and things are only going to get more hectic as a bunch more shows get set to open at the end of this week.

Rather than write full length reviews of these shows, I'm providing a roundup of shorter takes – although I'm fully aware that my last roundup featured some pretty long reviews (hey, what can I say? I'd rather write too much than too little about shows I really like).

Excellent English

Whatever you do, don't miss seeing Sanaz Toossi's English (Rating: ✭✭✭✭). It's a funny, heartbreaking new play given a warm and thoughtful production at Soulpepper, where it's playing before travelling to the co-producing Segal Centre in Montreal.

The premise is deceptively simple: in a classroom in Karaj, Iran, four adults are trying to learn English in order to pass the TOEFL – or Test of English as a Foreign Language.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

Each student has a different reason for being there. The forthright, confident Elham (Ghazal Azarbad) has failed the test several times, and needs to pass it in order to attend medical school in Australia. The dignified Roya (Banafsheh Taherian) wants to learn English before joining her son, his wife and daughter in Canada – her strict son doesn't want his child to be hearing Farsi. Omid (Sepehr Reybod), the best student in the class, is hoping to get a Green card to work in America. And the young Goli (Aylin Oyan Safahshoor) simply wants to expand her horizons, her whole life ahead of her.

Their instructor, Marjan (Ghazal Partou), developed her fluency in English after living in Manchester, England for nine years. But after returning to Iran, she's beginning to notice her Ws sounding like Vs. (Note: when the characters are speaking English, they speak more tentatively, with thicker accents; when they're talking in Farsi they speak more comfortably.)

While the structure of the piece occasionally feels schematic in the manner of plays and movies where different people are forced to share the same space, it's also refreshingly expansive.

Toossi shows how language can be used to express basic needs and wants but also, of course, reveal what's in your soul. She also explores the often unspoken biases against certain kinds of accents; why, asks Elham, do French and British English accents sound more attractive than Iranian ones?

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings

The dialogue is funny, not just in the unintentionally mangled idiomatic expressions but in analyses of pop lyrics by Shakira, contrived recordings of "typical" conversations – familiar to anyone who's tried to study a language – and specific takes on pop culture. Marjan, who enjoys watching English romantic comedies during her office hours (Omid is a willing viewer), says it usually takes two people to understand what Hugh Grant is saying.

As we get deeper into the play, the characters' struggles with learning this new language become more fraught. Roya's situation, as she leaves unanswered messages on her son's voice mail to show off her vocabulary, becomes especially moving. And although Toossi wrote the play before the Women, Life, Freedom movement, the fact that four of the five characters are women takes on a real poignancy.

Co-directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and set designer Anahita Dehbonehie, this production is nice looking (the tile floor is stunning, and the view of the city through a window effective) but could be more intimate. After watching the recent Martyr and Yerma – two shows performed in-the-round – or even last year's Alice in Wonderland, set partly in a classroom – this traditional staging of the play lessens its immediacy.

That said, what a thrill to see five talented Iranian-Canadian actors on a Toronto main stage in big, juicy roles. (I'd admired Taherian and Safahshoor in Swim Team and Reybod in the Stratford/Why Not R&J). Here's hoping we see more of all five of them soon – in all kinds of roles.

English continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House) until March 5. See info here. Then it travels to Montreal's Segal Centre for the Performing Arts (5170 Côte-Ste-Cathérine) from March 19 to April 2. See info here.

Scott Wentworth is a deeply effective Lear. Photo by Kyle Purcell

Illuminating Lear

You've probably seen many, many productions of King Lear. But I guarantee that none has been or will be as intimate as this staging by Shakespeare BASH'd. Performed in the BMO space at the Theatre Centre, this version of the First Folio, titled The Tragedy of King Lear (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), is the Bard up close and personal. Depending on where you're sitting, the vile jelly of Gloucester's plucked eyeball might just plop near your feet.

Without relying on special effects – the famous storm is suggested largely by an umbrella and the swaying of a few rows of hanging lights – director James Wallis instead focuses on characters caught up in a gripping drama about fathers separated from children, loyalty, madness and people gaining insight through blindness. In other words, Wallis and his actors bring out all the rich humanity, poetry and timeless themes of the play without any of the pomp and pageantry. (That said, there are some absolutely kick-ass fight scenes, choreographed by Jennifer Dzialoszynski.)

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

Wallis makes some interesting choices that make you see the play with fresh eyes. Kent is played by a woman (Mairi Babb), providing a (slightly) older female presence that's usually absent, making Kent's concern over the fate of Cordelia (Breanne Tice) almost maternal. Sisters Goneril (Melanie Leon) and Regan (Madelaine Hodges) start out more sympathetic before they're subjected to the second half's scattered structure. And there's a poignant bit of foreshadowing when Lear (Scott Wentworth) dons the Fool's (Julia Nish-Lapidus) coxcomb (a cheap replica of his actual crown) fairly early in the play.

Perhaps it's because of the audience's proximity to the performers, but I've never seen a production of the play in which Lear – who barely listens to anyone in the first few scenes – listens so intently to those around him later. Wentworth's Lear finds nuggets of wisdom everywhere, from his Fool and Edgar's Poor Tom (Ngabo Nabea) to Kent.

It helps that Wentworth and Nish-Lapidus have such a winning rapport. Their scenes are among the most absorbing, and the latter's silences say as much as her words. Pay special attention to her knowing delivery of "And I'll go to bed at noon," her final line.

Wallis makes terrific use of the space, ensuring entrances and exits happen quickly and efficiently, and even using a little curtained-off alcove (normally the tech booth?) to stand in briefly for a cave.

He gets fine performances from his cast, with supporting characters like Albany, the Duke of Burgundy and even the courier Curan coming alive in performances by Ben Yoganathan, Steven Hao and Tice. Deivan Steele nails his centre-stage monologues as the cynical Edmund, and Daniel Briere makes a particularly violent Cornwall.

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings

Wentworth, meanwhile, with his rich, sonorous voice and weighty presence, creates a man who goes through a complete change. He delivers his lines – even the most familiar ones – with true feeling and understanding. There's no fake portent or lyricism to his "As flies to wanton boys" line – it's almost an offhand observation. But when he says "You have some cause, they have not," the words resonate with depth and meaning.

Wallis puts him through his physical paces; a scene in which the king is on his knees means one thing at the beginning of the play, and another at the end. This is a very low-to-the-ground staging, making use of the intimate theatre.

And when Wentworth's Lear delivers his five repeated words near the end, they're accompanied by a gesture of such love and tenderness that, like most of the crowd at the performance I saw, you'll be tearing up.

The Tragedy of King Lear continues at the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West) unril February 26. See info here.

Deborah Drakeford (left), Christopher Allen, Chala Hunter and Brian Dooley explore race in Redbone Coonhound. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Sketchy satire

As the recent Broadway show Slave Play has proven, the subject of interracial dating can provide some incendiary, controversial, funny and thoughtful theatre. Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton's Redbone Coonhound (Rating: ✭✭✭) warrants some of those same adjectives, but it could be a lot more nuanced and thoughtful.

Mike (Christopher Allen) and Marissa (Chala Hunter) are a Vancouver couple whose lives get upturned one day after they meet a couple chasing after an unruly dog named John. It turns out John's breed name is Redbone Coonhound, a name that makes Mike, who's Black, uncomfortable on several levels.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

This causes a rift in their relationship, especially when, later that day, they're entertaining their friends Gerald (Kwesi Ameyaw) and Aisha (Lucinda Davis), a Black couple, and Jordan (Jesse Dwyre), Marissa's white friend. This little house party does not go well.

Punctuating these scenes are satiric sketches depicting the uneasy tension and unequal power balance between races over the years. These include everything from a broad take on earnest liberal white folks trying to help slaves navigate the underground railroad in 1858 to a look at 1935 Hollywood in which a perky white child star (Hunter) shares inane banter with an older Black dancer (Ameyaw), a nod to the iconic scene between Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

There are two very funny sketches. In one, a white daughter (Hunter) disappoints her well-meaning dashiki- and Howard University sweatshirt-wearing white parents (Brian Dooley and Deborah Drakeford) by bringing home a white boyfriend named Jamal (Dwyre). In the other, this one set in the future, two Black people (Davis and Ameyaw) on a spaceship have eradicated racism, until they realize they haven't (look for Drakeford playing a character named Karen for some of the most savage satire in the show).

The problem is, the jargon-spouting characters and their triggering conflicts in the central story aren't fleshed out sufficiently to make you care about what will happen to them, or how the surrounding sketches comment on the dynamics in their own lives.

Still, judging from the occasional bursts of laughter, the playwrights – who are also a real-life interracial couple – and director Micheline Chevrier (with Kwaku Okyere) are onto something. They're dealing with timely, urgent themes about race, sexuality and power; with a bit of finessing, and some sharper characterizations, the play could become one of those button-pushing shows that captures a specific moment the way only live theatre can. But it has a way to go yet.

Presented by Tarragon and Imago Theatre, Redbone Coonhound continues at the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman) until March 5. See info here.

My first month as an independent theatre blogger

The past few weeks have been a bit of a blur. Thank you all for your condolences about the passing of my father – on here, email, social media and in person.

Catching up on emails, I realize I forgot to amplify a January 27 article I wrote about my first month running this site. The good folks at Generator were kind enough to ask me to contribute something that I might not post on So Sumi.

That got me thinking about what I originally wanted the site to be, and what the reality has been like. It also made me reflect on how theatre writing has changed over the decades. I think the piece turned out well. So thank you again to Patricia Allison for commissioning it.

If you haven't read the piece, it's here.

Coming up

As I teased at the beginning of this post, there are lot more openings this week, including the return of the blockbuster musical Hamilton; a new production of the jukebox show Rock of Ages; a new play based on astronaut Chris Hadfield's children's book; a musical revue featuring the songs of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan; and the world premiere of Paolo Santalucia's queer take on the prodigal child story, Prodigal.

You can find info about all of them at my continually updated Toronto Theatre Listings section. And of course I'll be writing about them right here, too.