Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: (Calgary) Bashir Lazhar

Poster art
Alone, Together
by Joe Vermeulen

Bashir Lazhar, a franco-Canadian play by Evelyne De La Chenelière, is a fantastic exploration about racism, suicide and death, love and loss, and institutional failure. The play opens with a comic introspection where Bashir attempts to work out how best to introduce himself to his new class. As a supply teacher, he has to work out how far the class has progressed. While the opening and much of the show is comic, through his lessons we delve deeper into his experience as a refugee and the strength of children.

Haysam Kadri, in the title role, is simply phenomenal. He clearly emotionally connects with the character and thus the audience. We were moved to tears by his experiences of institutional failure, both of the immigration system and in his school. We yearn with him to express the feelings of his students after being witness to a horrific tragedy and we feel his frustration at the repeated attempts to silence and belittle their collective experiences. While the dialogue is only in English, every time he writes on the chalkboard he writes in clear French, solidifying the illusion that was built that we are watching a show in French, but hearing the words in English. This wonderful homage to the origins of the play in Quebec seemed so natural that it took a moment to realize what had happened. 

Lara Schmitz in the role of “Girl” played the part of Bashir’s wife, daugher Alice, and a student also named Alice. Mostly a silent role, Schmitz nevertheless excelled in matching Kadri’s emotional intensity. While Kadri writes lessons and phrases on the chalkboard, she drew pictures that became woven into the fable of the play at the end of the show. The pictures resonated just as much as the words of the play, and were beautifully drawn.
Anton de Groot’s production design while simple was extremely effective. The ingenious use of large chalkboard set pieces and having the audience arranged much like a schoolroom drew the audience directly into Bashir’s classroom. Peter Moller’s sound design tied all of the various locations of the play together, and provided Bashir with a way to reconnect to his homeland through his memories.
Simon Mallet’s staging was excellent. Each of the characters and the meaning of the play were exceptionally clear even as they were complex.
Downstage, the producing company, hosts a conversation with the audience and the company after every performance and lets you put notes on the wall outside the theatre to discuss how the play resonated with you. They also provide several online forums for feedback and communication. This willingness to be involved in a dialogue with the audience even long after the performance is simply wonderful and if you can stay after the show it is a valuable experience.
The play resonated with me and moved me nearly to tears. Several teachers in the audience remarked that the comments about education and teaching in the play resonated with them very strongly. This is one play that I want to see again. I simply loved it. 

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