The Toronto Theatre Review: Tarragon Theatre’s Behind the Moon
It’s the law of the jungle, and in Anosh Irani’s captivatingly engaging new play, Behind the Moon, currently playing at Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, the jungle is Toronto, and it’s a pretty wounding place to find yourself trapped. Directed with a sharp, pointed power by Richard Rose (Tarragon’s Orphan Song), the comic tones to the bars seek to lighten us and in a way keep us unaware, especially within the first few scenes, as we wander through the city streets not seeing the problems that lock in and jail many of those who are scrubbing away the dirt right before our eyes, for far less than we assume, and maybe under circumstances that we can’t even imagine. At first, Ayub, portrayed provocatively by the impressively good Ali Kazmi (Crow’s Theatre’s Uncle Vanya), gives off an air of normality, working and cleaning the glass of an empty, now-closed Maghlai restaurant late at night. He’s diligent and determined, filling the space with his comic obsessiveness and basic goodness. We instantly like him, or maybe the better word is ‘care’, but he’s also someone we wouldn’t think twice about, if we are really being honest. We’d point at what we want (hopefully not touching the glass), pay the price, and leave (most likely) to take our food home to the nice, warm embrace of our home. Never giving that man who made and served us a second thought.
But suddenly something shifts in that space, and a stranger rattles the supposed peace with his incessant knocking on the glass door, begging to come in. It’s an emergency, he says, but not for salvation. Or is it, in a way. He desperately needs Indian food, to bite into some of Ayub’s apparently very good Indian food that will hopefully deliver him somewhere. His need for connection touches the sweet-natured cook and cleaner of this, Behind the Moon restaurant, and Ayub gives in. Yet we are on the defense, akin to Ayub, who holds his spray bottle up like it’s a gun, ready to protect himself from this seemingly deranged Indian immigrant. The man is upset, but we don’t know why, or why he savors the food as if it has given him a second chance at life. He tells Ayub he drives a taxi, but he is, like many others, so much more than that.
Ayub, after seeing that the man can pass his unspoken test, gives Jalal what he wants and needs, some deliciously past-its-prime butter chicken, in a gesture that is seasoned with a kindness that seems innate. The stranger, Jalal, beautifully portrayed by Husein Madhavji (Factory Theatre’s Men in White), is touched and moved, just like we all are. But he, like all of us in the audience, knows something is not quite right in this room. It’s obviously not the butter chicken, but there is something rotten in this jungle. The peace has been shattered, but as the stranger leaves, the only thing that seems clear is that Ayub cleans because he has no choice but to. Yet it isn’t making anything in his life sparkle and look and feel any brighter.
The well-dressed owner, “his owner“, Qadir Bhai, strongly played by Vik Sahay (Soulpepper’s Hamlet) arrives in the morning with good news about his business. Ayub is there, setting the place up, putting the food out, and serving him food and beverage. They act like family, and Qadir speaks to Ayub as if he is a nephew or younger relative that needs his assistance. It feels natural, like many an immigrant’s story, with the more established helping the newly arrived find employment and a new beginning. And in a way, I think, we are being trained to see it through these rose-tinted glasses, yet something doesn’t sit right the more we look and the more we pay attention to the details. Somewhere inside the words of Anosh Irani’s (Buffoon) focused play and the behaviors of the hard-working Ayub, we start to feel the cage doors snap shut. We, as a community, are trained to not look too deeply, because we might see something that is quite the opposite of what is being thoughtfully presented, and that would upset the privileged scenario that suits our hunger for authentic Indian food. And force us to either stand up or look away.
But Jalal sees it, and hears it, in a way that we might have missed. Ayub is very suspicious when the man returns, and continues to return, wondering what he wants from him. But it is because Jalal has noticed something; a barred scenario that was hidden behind closed doors. The play ticks forward, with shifting scenes between Jalal’s late-night inquisitive visits and Qadir’s increasingly uncomfortable surveillances each morning. Until they all collide one morning after the tree branch rattles the cage and the wind blows in a reality that can’t be unseen. The animal at the center is slowly losing his grip on the spray bottle, and so, gently in its assault, the play tilts into something surprisingly compassionate and deeply upsetting.
In a story of inner faith, deep loss, and ultimate brotherhood, so much exists, barely, Behind the Moon for three very different Indo-Canadian immigrant experiences. In that complicated workspace that feels as exactingly generic as can be, designed perfectly by Michelle Tracey (Stratford’s Nathan the Wise), with artful lighting by Jason Hand (Tarragon’s The Ugly One) and a strong sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne (Tarragon’s Redbone Coonhound), reality starts to bend the interiors of Ayub’s caged mind. He’s left behind his family and lost the dreams he packed dutifully in his suitcase as he made his way to Canada, but his immigrant story isn’t the one we have read in those feel-good stories – I’m not sure anyone’s full story is. It’s much darker, with a pain that has brought them, Ayub and Jalal, to their knees. We watch in disbelief, not because of the mystical tree swaying outside, but because it doesn’t fit the worldview and the P.R. campaign. The costuming, also by Tracey, gives us sly clues, even when we wonder why the well-dressed owner looks so different later on. We also wonder how this good man cooking and working so hard to keep this place spotlessly clean became this caged rat, spiraling out of control, in deep dark desperation to keep this world that has dirtied him, so clean. “I want to see my face in those tiles,” Qadir says, but the reflection is something quite different and far more disturbing than he probably tells himself nightly. And we can’t look away. Even when we would like to.
Take that journey to Behind the Moon. It’s not what you will see in the immigration brochure. It’s something quite the opposite. And that is exactly the point. Behind the Moon is currently playing at Tarragon Theatre from February 21 – March 19, 2023. Click here for Tickets and information.