Since 1989, Modern Times Stage Company has come to stand for elegance of expression. Its productions are spare and passionate, whether the plays are original, classical or international. Co-artistic directors Soheil Parsa and Peter Farbridge believe in content that says something about and to humanity at large. As a result, there is a timeless quality to a Modern Times production. If I had to sum up the company in one word, it would be universality.
The Death of the King by Iranian-born, California-based playwright Bahram Beyzaie is vintage Modern Times. Its impact is part classical Greek Theatre (in its declamatory style), partly Pirandello (in its shifting reality of what is truth), and partly Scheherazade (in terms of storytelling as a way of staying alive). In the larger picture that Beyzaie presents, the play asks more questions than it answers.
The playwright has taken a real-life historical incident from Persia’s past as his wellspring for inspiration. In the seventh century CE, Arab conquerors, missionaries of the Moslem faith, overran Persia, chasing out both the ruling King Yazdgerd and the state Zoroastrian religion. The king apparently was a coward, hiding from both his own people and the Arab invaders. History records that Yazdgerd’s body was finally found by his courtiers in an out-of-the-way flourmill. The miller was then charged with the king’s murder.
Beyzaie begins his play with the discovery of the king’s body. There are two groups of protagonists. On one side are the miller (Ron Kennell), his wife (Jani Lauzon) and his daughter (Bahareh Yaraghi). Ranged against these poor peasants are the Commander (Carlos González-Vio), the Corporal (Sean Baek), the Private (Colin Doyle), and the Zoroastrian Priest (Steven Bush). As per Modern Times custom, the cast is multicultural which adds to the universality of the theme.
The playwright builds his dialogue upon the ever-shifting stories that the miller’s family keeps spinning. In fact, there are more twists and turns than a pretzel, leaving the king’s forces swinging in the wind as to what to believe. What was at first an easy and obvious summary judgement, that the miller killed the king for the riches that he carried, in time becomes a gigantic miasma of truths and untruths. At one point, there is an idea afloat that the dead man might not even be the king!
In the meantime, the audience learns about the almost farcical relationship between the king and his ministers, as well as the toxic dynamics within the miller’s family itself. Also explored is the unequal bond between the ruler and those ruled, the powerful against the powerless. In the search for truth, justice depends on your rank in society. As per the accuracy of history, it is recorded categorically that the miller is the murderer, but Beyzaie presents a multitude of other scenarios relating to the killing that could have ensued, and presents a parade of other motives for the killing beyond mere greed. Beyzaie’s various theme explorations might sound heavy-duty, but the playwright has scripted in surprising bouts of humour as well as peppering the dialogue with soupçons of irony and sarcasm.
Parsa has directed the play like a Greek tragedy. The actors pronounce their words in great oratory style. When each person speaks, they are given complete focus. There is a minimum of movement, and what there is, accents the dramatic outpourings. On opening night there were some fluffed lines and uneven pacing (particularly the priest), but then Beyzaie has written a torrent of words. This is meaty stuff, and Parsa gives the dialogue full weight.
The women excel. Lauzon gives a performance of a lifetime as the bitter wife, while Yaraghi’s fragility is beautifully detailed. Kennell’s miller goes through the most changes, and the actor carries both the humour and the horror with aplomb. All three military men hold their own, and Parsa has included stage business which accentuates their seize and control mentality, particularly González-Vio as the commander. Bush’s ineffectual priest speaks volumes of a religion on the wane.
As always, Modern Times theatrical values are strong. Kudos must go to Trevor Schwellnus’s inspired set, comprising of a sloping disc representing both the mill wheel and a main playing platform. The fabricated body of the dead king, lying centre stage, is like the elephant in the room. Schwellnus is also responsible for the subtle lighting that shifts focus of concentration, while Teresa Przybylski captures both the upper and lower class costumes without being obtrusive. Thomas Ryder Payne has provided one of his clever soundtracks which emphasizes the drama.
In Beyzaie, Parsa has presented an important international writer with a unique perspective on twisted realities.
The Death of a King by Bahram Beyzaie, directed by Soheil Parsa, Modern Times Stage Company/The Theatre Centre, Mar. 26 to Apr. 10, 2016.