“The Hooves Belonged to the Deer” Shoots Wild and True at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

Ryan Hollyman, Makram Ayache, and Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer – Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

The Toronto Theatre Review: Tarragon Theatre’s The Hooves Belonged to the Deer

By Ross

Epic in its deliverance and its panorama, I experienced the same sort of sharp emotional jabs as when, for the first time, I saw Angels in America, and The Inheritance, two epic explorations of queerness, and HIV/AIDS in America that instantly became iconic in their unpacking. It wasn’t exactly the same, this deep dive into Alberta, but the confluence of religion, religious text, and the queer experience, particularly around shame, addiction, and identity could not be ignored. It’s dense and determined; sometimes overwhelming, especially for those souls that were not raised with religion, let alone the ones presented here. I do not know the bible well, nor its stories (luckily I was with someone who did), but the references, when seen, light up the stage with intellect and wonder, giving insight and meaning far beyond what is being delivered here. Yet, even without, the message is received, and it is majestically powerful.

Entwined within, The Hooves Belonged to the Deer, the utterly engaging new play written with glory and inquisitiveness by its star, playwright Makram Ayache (The Green Line), is a layering of provocative themes that require unraveling and exploring, including the impacts of oppressive colonial Christian systems on our queer youth. The ideas come galloping forward with skill and an adventurous spirit. They are uncovered and kicked about, engulfing us all in their complexities and confrontations while forcing us to contemplate centuries of overt oppression and subtle hatred. Commissioned and developed by the Alberta Queer Calendar Project, with additional support from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, this Tarragon Theatre production breaks apart traditional boundaries and squares out the stories and religious references in a captivatingly complex and engaging manner, giving drink, replenishment, and cleansing inside a structure that is unique and dynamic.

Eric Wigston and Makram Ayache in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer – Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

As written in the red sands of time, this story of love against the odds finds weight and power within its structured and hypnotic layerings, Made up of fantastical renderings about religion and queerness, the set unfolds, rich in color and light, ignited by a shot into the darkness as the talented cast enters and awaits their moment to shine. Spotlighting a deer’s head on the wall, the profound magical space is beautifully crafted with abstractionistic relevance by set & costume designer Anahita Dehbonehie (Soulpepper/Segal Centre’s English), with intensely engaging lighting by Whittyn Jason (Theatre Calgary’s Little Women), and a solid sound design by Chris Pereira (The Citadel Theatre’s Rochdale). It tightens its grip on our senses from the first flood of information to the epic conclusion that washes and wishes. It plays with our senses at every angle, asking important questions about god and its tight hold over the way we love and accept others.

It is the beginning; of mankind, and of a love that is surging forward due to that “familiar look in your eyes.” It grows forth, strong and complicated, in a small prairie town between two young men, against a backdrop of oppression, self-loathing, strict religious fervor, and the hard treacherous path through the desert towards self-love and acceptance. “Man created god,” we are told, and then capitalized and weaponized the formulation. It’s a striking assertion, that feels utterly true, yet basically denied by all who want to enfold and enlist. And no one feels it more conflictual than Izzy, portrayed with touching personality and angst by the playwright and actor, Makram Ayache (In Arms Theatre Collective’s Harun). This is especially true when he looks into the eyes of his best friend, Will, powerfully portrayed by the captivating Eric Wigston (Vertigo Theatre’s The Extractionist). “I think I like him,” he unwillingly unveils, while questioning himself and voicing his concerned internal belief that he might be “the worst Muslim there is.” There is an existential collision of sorts, out in the fields with Will, between the part that feels the powerful pull of love and connection, and the other part that sends him spiraling into the questionable realm of Evangelical Pastor Isaac, captivatingly portrayed by Ryan Hollyman (Factory’s Among Men). It is there where we see how shame can spread and infect, where hate and love are so intertwined that marked sadness envelopes all that come before him.

Ryan Hollyman, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski, Bahareh Yaraghi, Makram Ayache, Eric Wigston, and Noor Hamdi in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer – Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Baby girl, it’s fine, (don’t call me baby girl!).” But Izzy doesn’t stop his “lugubrious” inquisition there. He dives deep into his unconsciousness, igniting a fantastical journey into the Genesis of all creation. Through the intensely wise and emotional writing of Ayache, his character conjures forth a paradigm; a modernized dimension that contains a desperate Hawa, played with supreme intensity by the wonderful Bahareh Yaraghi (Mirvish/RMTC’s A Doll’s House, Part2) and her partner, Aadam, beautifully portrayed by Noor Hamdi (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), who’s rib, supposedly, she was created from. Their existence, somewhere deep inside Izzy’s internal realm, playfully unspools the ancient tale of the first couple of the Quran, with hilarious abstractionisms scripted in, made up of voicemail messages left by the symbolic Eve, anxious and yearning for her distracted Adam, as he wanders through the desert exploring and looking for a freedom he can’t quite name. The play digs into their attachment and disconnection, playing most brilliantly on frameworks that revolve around attraction and what our particular bodies are made for and drawn to. Then, in an act of playful subversion, The Hooves… throws in a visually and erotically appealing light-skinned warrior from the North quite ingeniously named Steve, played wonderfully by the very appealing Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski (Dauntless City Theatre’s Love’s Labours Lost), giving off a Jesus-on-a-cross vibe that can’t be ignored. Nor should we, nor would Aadam want to.

The layers start to captivatingly converge and overlap, engaging with one another while playing with the ideas of sin and the steep upward climb toward temptation that pulls on all. Pastor Isaac starts to push his Christian formula for salvation forward, on, and toward the confused, anxious Izzy, pressuring and weighing him down, while also engaging from a twisted place of warmth and love. Yet, we hear the undercurrent of hate, mixed with the ideals of the church, spreading shame into every pore of Izzy’s being, while systematically disregarding the young man’s own religious beliefs. Isaac sells Christianity as if it is the only way, almost desperately, a coding that causes my skin to itch. “Sounds like a cult,” Will, like all good heroes, objectively suggests, and personally, I couldn’t agree more.

Noor Hamdi, Eric Wigston, and Makram Ayache seated in the back, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski and Ryan Hollyman standing in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer – Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Meanwhile, back in the Garden of Eden, Steve begins to entwine, overtake, and enthrall Aadam, with the anxious Eve/Hawa standing by nervously and intelligently watching. The characters illuminate the conflict, yet also take on symbolically adjacent roles in Izzy’s real here-and-now world, like Shepherd-Gawinski’s Jake, the troubled son of Pastor Isaac and his first love, Lilith. It’s a compelling name to casually fling out (and I hope I got it right), as Lilith is cited in rabbinic literature as having been ‘banished’ from the Garden of Eden for not complying with and obeying Adam. She’s also depicted as made from the same soil as Adam (not his rib like Eve) and is the mother of Adam’s demonic offspring.

The framework sizzles, adding a layering to Jake that resonates in ways that are almost too much to contain, especially once we realize why Jake isn’t around at the beginning of this tale. We are also gifted with Yaraghi as the new wife of the Pastor, Rebecca, who wants nothing to do with his difficult son from a different mother. We also come to know Hamdi as the wild gay man from Calgary (the NYC of Alberta), Reza who befriends Izzy (and Will) years later. he’s the symbolic ethical slut coming together with the pair after a powerful, intellectual speech given by Izzy on all that is being unpacked here. It’s a colossally charged layering that continually elevates us up the ladder, while simultaneously throwing us deep into the red sand, where time and reality start to bend and twist the further this piece takes us. Each of the actors excels, majestically rising up strong and with intensity and clarity, reconciling multiple identities and formulations that wrestle hard against the weight and oppression of shame.

All that shame doesn’t belong to us,” we are told (one of my favorite lines and moments of many), and as the cast, guided by the magnificence of director Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Millennial Malcontent), with an assist by Michelle Mohammad (Coal Mine Theatre’s Yerma), wind their way through the complications and intensities of coming to terms with themselves and the damages done by the oppression of organized religion, the play unfolds the layers and chapters with determination and grace. The formulations get a bit muddled and confusing as Hawa wades into the water near the end of this stunning play, cleansing herself from what has brought such pain into existence. Yet, we can’t help but be moved by the impressive adventure we have been taken on by Ayache and The Hooves Belongs to the Deer. It’s gigantic, smart, and intense, forcing strongly felt ideas forward, sometimes playfully, and sometimes with a strong grasp of their importance and deep emotional meaning. And with my companion unpacking just a few connections to the Bible, I found myself sinking even more deeply into the compelling and complex red sand, happy to go on this journey and thankful for the unpacking that is required.

Noor Hamdi, Makram Ayache, and Eric Wigston in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer – Tarragon Theatre 2023 – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.


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