Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Bashir Lazhar

On the Theme of Immigration
by John Herbert Cunningham

Given that Theatre Projects Manitoba describes its mandate, on its website, as follows: "We develop the voices of our region, choosing stories that have a connection to our community, our history and culture and grow these new creations with passionate support", one may forgive the  audience for wondering what this play is doing on the TPM playlist for this season. That audience would be even more perplexed when they realized that the first of the two plays this season was also a translation of a Quebec playwright's play.

But then, Manitoba does have one of the largest French-speaking populations outside of Quebec. Thus, that does in fact fit the mandate as French is a definite and important part of Manitoba's history and culture.

Perhaps that was why it was titled Monsieur Lazhar.

If one had seen the movie version of Evelyne de la Chanelière's play, one might be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone. The movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award, had nothing at all to do with the play. Perhaps that was why it was titled Monsieur Lazhar.

We are here concerned with the monologue titled Bashir Lazhar. And being concerned with the monologue, we recognize almost immediately a significant difference between the movie and the play. The movie opens with children playing in a school yard. One of the children, when returning to his home room early, discovers the body of his teacher hanging from a rafter in the room. The play opens with a male gazing into a mirror in his apartment while practicing various forms of greetings to the class for which he will be a substitute teacher. It isn't until much later that we learn about the suicide.

One would be forgiven (and, yes, we are doing a lot of that in this review) if one swore on a stack of Korans that the actor practicing those greetings was of middle-eastern extraction. His accent was so authentic and consistent. Then you read his name and realize there is no way in the seventh heaven that a person named David Adams has ever been near Algeria - except perhaps when on vacation.

Abrams does a superb job as we watch him encounter different circumstances. Much of his dialogue is his half of various conversations - with students, with the school principal and with a judge at an immigration hearing.

This latter introduces the theme of immigration and the difficulties immigrants encounter in their attempts to gain Canadian citizenship.

Lazhar has fled Algeria due to political turmoil and death threats. He has left his wife and children behind as his wife, a schoolteacher, wanted to complete her semester before joining him. While she and the children remain in Algeria, their apartment block is burnt down in the middle of the night with all perishing. The judge does not believe that Lazhar is a political refugee because he does not grieve enough. Lazhar's position is that he wants to imagine that his wife and children are still alive.

The drama of the play is heightened significantly by the lighting and the stage setting.

Hugh Conacher, who is one of Manitoba's top lighting designers, has done an excellent job of backlighting windows, creating a flashing red light through a panel of some sort and otherwise adding to the surrealistic quality of the set created by Joan Murphy Kakoske.

The teacher's desk has the legs of one side shorter than the other. Students' desks are stacked in disarray. The door frame and the door don't match. Lazhar has to climb a stack of desks protruding from which is a Canadian flag in order to speak to the immigration judge.

The one problem with this play is the tremendous number of times the stage is blacked out as it moves from one episode (not really a scene) to another. Although this does add to the surrealistic quality, the problem it creates was easily seen at the end when the audience was reluctant to applaud. They didn't know whether this was just another blackout or truly the end.

Adams was joined on stage towards the end by Alanna Essenburg playing the role of a child. This really wasn't necessary. All that did was distract from an otherwise excellent monologue.

For the most part, Bashir Lazhar was a very effective play.

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