Theatre Review – Modern Times/Theatre Centre – Bahram Beyzaie’s The Death of the King

death-of-the-king3.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxSince 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.

death.king1The 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.

death.king2Parsa 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.


Theatre Review – Panamerican Routes/Rutas Panamericanas

What a splendid day I had catching the first three shows of this exciting new festival all in one go. The brainchild is Beatriz Pizano – writer, director, actor and artistic director of Aluna Theatre. Her mandate is the presentation of Latin American artists with an emphasis on human rights.

What follows is just a brief summary of the performances from the first week of the festival.

Loco7’s amazing Urban Odyssey is one of the greatest works of imagination I have ever seen. Colombian-born Federico Restrepo, and his co-creator Denise Greber, are the masterminds of this New York based company at the famed La Mama Theatre. He directs, choreographs and designs the fantastic puppets. She is the costume designer.

Urban Odyssey is a journey of an immigrant from a land of troubles to the uncertainty of a new land, all told through dance theatre and puppetry. But these just aren’t any puppets. The boat that carries the immigrant is so realistic it takes one’s breath away. Corporate giants (and I do mean giants) who ravage the earth are brilliant metaphors. The happy houses made up of doors, with a delightful melange of adorable puppet children, put a big smile on one’s face.

The message is a sad one – the corporate giants and their grasping underlings win – but Loco7’s theatre experience blows the mind.

Mexican-born, San Francisco-based Violeta Luna is a performance artist whose Parting Memories is a poignant experience. While a voice-over in Spanish (with English surtitles) relates the chronology of a woman and her family crossing the border illegally, Luna engages in simple tasks before a video screen that is filled with non-stop images related to her life. In fact, Mickey Tachiban’s video is brilliant in its mix of realism and fantasy. Kudos also to David Molina for a searing sound design, and director Roberto G. Varga who understands economy of movement.

As for Luna, her performance art is full of symbolism and metaphor. She starts off with a hopscotch grid, but each square contains an item, such as shoes that become relevant for her life. She encases the audience in a cage of string. She takes her passport, a family photograph and money out of a loaf of bread that she then offers to the audience to pass around. She sews these personal items onto her skirt. At another point, she looks like a Madonna, encased in white.

Nothing is hurried, Nothing jars. She works quietly through her tasks while the horrific story unfolds. Her stillness and silence speak of quiet strength and courage. She is the consummate icon of a Latin American woman who has lived through much sorrow. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Ixok’ is the name of a woman (and of the show), whose tragic life is portrayed through dance and text by Mexican-born, Toronto-based Mayahuel Tecozautla. The words are by Edgar Flores and Carmen Samayoa. Beatriz Pizano directed with choreographer Olga Barrios. On stage live is musician Brandon Valdivia with his formidable array of percussion instruments and recorders. Tecozautla speaks Spanish but there are English surtitles.

During the 1980s in Guatemala, the Mayan Genocide took the lives of over 250,000 victims. Ixox’ is an indigenous peasant who tries to find safety for herself and her child in the jungle. The painful story recounts her childhood, marriage, and her struggles during the civil war. Designers Andjelija Djuric and Trevor Schwellnus have created a gorgeous play of lights as well as indigenous costumes that eloquently capture time and place.Tecozautla is a charismatic performer. Her body is compact and tight, but she carries grace in her strength. The text is very moving.

While the other two shows were Mainstage Performances, Ixok’ is a Showcase, so presumably, a staging getting ready for a fuller performance later on. Nonetheless, it held up very well with the other two.

If this is the kind of quality Pizano is going to bring us in Panamercan Routes – that Latin American love of magic realism in all its many guises – than I wish her well. I want more. This festival was a perfectly satisfying theatrical experience on every level.

The second week of the Panamerican Routes features Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box, and a remount of Aluna Theatre’s ambitious  Nohayquiensepa (No One Knows). The showcase is a reading of Rosa Laborde’s new play Marine Life. The festival runs until this weekend. It’s a keeper.

Panamerican Routes/Rutas Panamericanas, Aluna Theatre in association with Theatre Passe Muraille, May 15 to 27, 2012

Theatre Review – Liza Balkan’s Out the Window

The Theatre Centre’s annual Free Fall Festival is a showcase of experimental works, some more finished than others.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window is close to a full-scale production, and let’s hope that will happen very soon. The potency of the play did carry through despite actors being on script. Balkan says in her notes that the play was created to be read with minimal rehearsal, but I think she should consider having it memorized. The scripts are distracting over time.

But first for some background. On Aug. 9, 2000, at 1 am, Otto Vass, a 55-year-old father of 5, went to a 7/Eleven store in the Lansdowne area to get some BBQ sauce.  At first there was some altercation in the store. Then the police arrived. This is where Balkan comes in. Looking out her window, hence the title of the play, she saw the first two policemen beat Vass, who were then joined by the next two policemen. Four policemen with batons, and one dead Vass.

The play is about the vicissitudes of the justice system. It begins with the actual transcripts of the trial where prosecution witness Balkan is manhandled by the defence lawyer so as to discredit her truth. Then there is backtracking to the inquest where she at least gets her truth out.

The beauty of this play is the absence of a linear line. Balkan as a playwright is very unpredictable. For example, there is a scene where both the defence and prosecuting attorneys are present at a luncheon to answer Balkan’s questions post-trial as she does her research. Also included are six volunteer guests from the audience plus real food. The conversation is cynical to say the least with both men in casual conversation. The opposing views have disappeared into word play about the law. From this good-natured lunch, we then hear the policemen testify and the so-called “Blue Code of Silence” raises its head.

This unconventional approach, plus an excellent video component, make for a very disturbing play. Incidentally, via video, Balkan gets to slip in statistics of other deaths due to police overkill. Suffice it to say that the policemen in the Vass case were exonerated. After this experience, why would anyone get involved in the justice system?  (FYI, Balkan has an extensive website devoted to the case.)

Another ploy is to have excellent actor Julie Tepperman play Liza Balkan, and this third party approach lends credence to the objective view with Balkan functioning as director. When you have the likes of David Ferry for the defence, and R.H. Thompson for the prosecution, two of the best actors in the country, the former a malevolent imp, the latter Mr. Sobersides with no taste for the jugular, that makes for a powerhouse cast of contrasts. The young men who portray the policemen (who also cleverly enact the crisp and attentive waiters at the luncheon and other roles), are all very good, not to mention good-looking (Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray). Any juror is going to have to think twice about incarcerating these clean-living, wholesome-looking, mother’s favourites. Trevor Schwellnus has kept the set clean and workable, which also helps. One presumes the outstanding use of video is also Schwellnus’ contribution with its judicious mix of text and graphics.

Let’s hope that someone picks up this play for a long run, and keeps the cast intact.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window, (featuring Julie Tepperman, David Ferry, R.H. Thompson, Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray, directed by Liza Balkan), Theatre Centre’s Free Fall Festival, Mar. 17 to 25, 2012.