The Toronto Theatre Review: Soulpepper/Segal Centre’s English
“Three inches taller, when I speak English,” she says, quite clearly and with a surprised certainty, laying down some of the many complicated structurings that riddle themselves through Soulpepper Theatre’s English. Co-produced with Segal Centre, the production gives us a timely glimpse into something complex, special, and definitely superb as it patiently unpacks meaning in language and about knowing who you are by the words you speak. Playwright Sanaz Toossi (Wish You Were Here) has crafted a brilliantly complex tale, one that I was lucky enough to see in NYC at the Atlantic Theatre Company, that maps out frustrations and the deep humanistic consequences that come when trying to ingest a new language into our minds, our hearts, and into our souls. Resonating deeply, the stories told here, thanks to the diligent co-direction of both Guillermo Verdecchia (Tarragon’s The Jungle) and set designer Anahita Dehbonehie (Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls…), dig deep into the ideas of acceptance, of belonging, and around connection, finding honor and an undeniable dissociation in the difficult framework of a new complex language.
Playing out with a wise composition of humor and pain on a stark set by Dehbonehie projecting other world complexities through a well-placed video-screened window, thanks to the video support of Samay Arcentales Cajas (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes), with strong costuming by Niloufar Ziaee (Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls…), lighting by Tim Rodrigues (Segal’s Marjorie Prime), and sound by Rob Denton (Segal’s Small Mouth Sounds), the play finds its force in its interconnected wit and competitive, investigative spirit. The action and interactions mostly take place in a bland classroom where four students have come together, somewhere in Karaj, a large suburb of Tehran, Iran to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL). But what transpires here is anything but bland. It is alive with humanistic honest interactions and conflict that resonate on more levels than we can fathom in just one viewing.
Attending to the spring of 2009, English surges forth in a quick one-act structure, with no recess for the overwhelmed. It unpacks the personal speed bumps for each of these four willing participants who have gathered together determined to pass the difficult test that will, hopefully, usher them into a new chapter in life. Instructed with a kind force by their teacher, Marjan, played with an empathetic edge by Ghazal Partou (“You Won’t See Winter“), the students, each with their own structural imbalance, find engagement and conflict within those four walls, particularly as Marjan insists that they inadvertently open themselves up to the vulnerability of only speaking English in class. A frustrating stance, one that I personally know all too well from years of unsuccessfully trying to learn French, and then Spanish and Italian in college and in private tutoring, but the stance clearly pushes the engine forward within an accurate ideal, even if it sometimes feels to them like punishment and frustration.
Marjan is a well-formed married woman who once lived in England and has returned to Iran to live with her husband. She puts out solidness when she teaches a small ‘English as a Second Language’ class, this time to the four adults we come to know. But her faith is cracking. Who is she, if her proficiency fades into the background streets outside the window? Speaking English, we are told, doesn’t elicit the feeling of poetry, not like Farsi, which the characters do slip into every so often. And although the play is written in English, we are made conscious in the most elegant of ways whenever the language shifts from English to their primary. It’s a beautifully constructed and performed angle that subtly emphasizes the exploration and digestion of what it means to speak out and be understood. And be seen as the person you really are.
When the students struggle with their English, and they do, we hear the tense hesitation and the accent, but when “Farsi is winning” and they switch to their native tongue, totally against the wishes of their teacher, their real selves are cleverly exposed, and their whole structure and stance change. The strongest of the bunch, or should I say the most conflicted and competitive, is Elham, a hopeful med school student played intensely by Ghazal Azarbad (Soulpepper’s The Seagull). She can’t help herself. It’s as if she has to lash out at everyone to hold her place and position in the room and in life. She’s edgy and hard to like, although in the way Azarbad portrays her with such secretive compassion, we can’t help but feel for her and want her to have a win.
Another who seems to have an interior life that is working hard to stay as secret as possible is the complex and rigid Roya, played stoically by the difficult-to-read Banafsheh Taherian (Canadian Stage’s The Only Possible Way). Her estranged son has emigrated to Canada and learning English is the strongly suggested requirement needed so that she might be given the permission to see and know her granddaughter. She rails, in her own quiet manner, fuming that it is “our mothers who get to name us, not foreigners,” yet, even though we connect to her pain, there is something that gets in the way of the meltdown, which in turn keeps us a bit removed from her sad anger and defiant retreat at the very moment we, and this play, needs it to be powerful and heart-breaking.
The youngest and by far the most compassionate and engaging is the smart and kind Goli, tenderly and delicately portrayed by the excellent Aylin Oyan Salahshoor (Theatre Centre’s Swim Team), who finds a way to connect to us all as she works hard to unlock a more promising future. There is another, and his position in the class is more fascinatingly complex and deceptive. Omid, portrayed well by Sepehr Reybod (Stratford’s Richard III), is obviously more advanced in his ability and seems to be holding a secret of his own close to his chest. He speaks English very well, but it is his flirtation with the teacher that sets alarm bells ringing. He gives off a feeling that is somewhat charming but, unfortunately for the play, also not that emotionally connecting. It’s physically present, in the Hollywood rom-com approach, mirrored in the movie watching done to take in the sound of the language, but it never feels soulful, nor organic, in both Reybod’s Omid or Partou’s Marjan. And her retreat and response is too brisk, and obvious, faltering inside the construct of subtlety. And still, we can’t quite figure him out, that is until it all gets thrown out into the center, and unravels before everyone’s eyes.
The co-directors find the energy and a pace that works, bridging the gaps and unearthing the undercurrents that exist deep inside identity. “I lose my mind when speaking English,” Etham states, with a combination of frustration and disgust. The big questions of assimilation and culture are stamped with authentic singularity on the outcome of a pass-or-fail test. Personal secrets are held close, but laid out for them all to see within those lessons. The characters and their subtleties deliver the meditation with a clear tender ease, producing a clever production of an insightful play, even as the climax isn’t as emotionally sharp as one could hope for. But the moments do sing with triumph, passing with some pretty high marks for its purposeful portrayal of language and identity.
The play couldn’t have come to Toronto at a more timely and important moment, considering all that is happening in Iran, Women’s rights protests have flared up, mainly because of the murder of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the Islamic Republic, and in turn, has sparked worldwide attention and concern. English at Soulpepper unearths layers upon layers of complex despair and frustration, in the way people struggle to learn language, and what it means to the identity and self-worth that their language gives them. Deep inside the sparse formulation of Dehbonehie and Verdecchia’s determined production of Toossi’s powerful and transporting play is an enigmatic construct around heritage and hope. It connects and engages, even if I wished for a bigger emotional punch from Roya, and the flirtation, telling a tale that is relevant and needed.
Soulpepper Theatre‘s English, written by Sanaz Toossi, is currently playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 9.