June 16 – 21, 2012
Sometimes you gotta go where the buzz is. In my initial Magnetic North Festival plans, One/Un was not on my schedule. It’s not that Mani Soleymanlou’s autobiographical play examining who he is and what it means to come from somewhere sounded disinteresting. But a solo, somewhat comedic show examining Mani’s journey from his origins in Iran to his current home in Montreal sounded, well, to be frank, like many other shows and books and independent films I’d already experienced previously. A story arc that I didn’t feel compelled to see yet again.
Then the talk from the Festival started making its way to my Inbox and my Twitter account. I was told that One/Un was a must see and was advised to even change my schedule to accommodate the performance. Not one to discount such heavy praise from sources I respect, I orchestrated a switcheroo and wrangled myself tickets to this eve’s performance with fingers crossed that the effort was worth it.
In about the middle of the play, there is a scene where Mani describes talking with his mother about the idea of putting this play on. He tells her he wants to do a show about what it means to be Persian and an Iranian in exile. Not in the general sense mind you, but specifically what it means to him, with his memories and his family and his stories. “But do you think that will be interesting?”, his mother asks him. My answer, by then already three-quarters of the way through this production was, not really. At least not to the extent I’d been lead to expect.
Instead of a compelling personal story of Mani’s experiences and difficulties trying to find his identity as an immigrant living in Paris, Toronto, Ottawa and finally Montreal, we are given flash card snippets of fairly mundane or narratively meaningless occurrences. He describes an embarrassing washroom scene in Paris at the age of eight where he encounters a urinal for the first time, but the telling lacks any real emotion and therefore rings hollow. Mani talks about a Jewish girl he meets who is now ‘dedicated to her children and Judaism” but then drops the subject completely in a strange non sequitur fashion. His high school days spent in Toronto at an immersion school (coincidentally next door to the high school I went to) are rattled off as simply a place where he and a lot of other immigrants were educated rather than giving us any insight into his feelings or challenges in those years. Mani’s Montreal years are better dramatized as a struggle between the Quebec identity forced upon him and his yearning to connect to the Iranian roots he never really knew having left the country at such a young age. Better still are the flashback stories of his visits back home with his family in Iran before he turned 15 and could not visit any longer for fear of being conscripted into the army.
But by this time we’ve skimmed through his life so quickly and without any real emotional insight, that we are happy when the play takes a turn away from his Coles Notes immigrant experience to a discussion of present day Iran and the history and problems of its people. It is here that Mani’s writing takes off as does his performance. Scenes describing why so many Iranians left Iran, how the Shah came to and lost power, how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the election and what life is like for young men and women under the present day oppressive day regime finally injected some substance into the narrative and were extremely well versed and confidently acted.
But overall, confidence seems to be a problem in this production. I have no quarrel with actors flubbing lines occasionally in a performance. And I would never dare mention one or two slip-ups in a review. But a whole show of tripping over the lines made Mani’s performance seem amateurish and unprepared. In all fairness, he is dealing with three languages in his script (English, French and Farsi) but for someone claiming to be fluent in all three, there is no excuse for the plethora of line flubs. The performance was shame, as I have no doubt that Mani’s acting is sincere, but sincerity without professional delivery makes for a very sloppy show.
As does poor lighting and direction. As inconsequential and thin as much of the narrative is, the opposite is true of the production. Heavy-handed is an understatement for Erwann Bernard’s lighting design and Mani Soleymanlou’s direction. Too often the lighting imposed itself on the action, blatantly and too obviously taking its cue from the narrative as opposed to complimenting it. Bernard’s design simply wasn’t interesting enough to make the effect feel like anything more than an intrusion. Mani’s direction suffered from the same issue. Jerky scene changes and some oddly choreographed moments felt more like inserts or interruptions that the natural flow of the performance.
Perhaps I’m being extra hard on the production given how high my expectations were made to run. There is a good play in here somewhere and I do believe that Soleymanlou can deliver it if he’s willing to spend some time in re-write and make sure he has a handle on his lines. But for right now, the play felt like a mediocre Fringe show at best and not something that should be called the hit of the Magnetic North Festival. I should know better that the buzz isn’t always something worth following.
For the guys and girls – With no emotional meat to this story, neither one of you will relate to Mani’s struggle for identity. But the narrative is occasionally amusing and the scenes dealing with Iranian politics are fascinating. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional audience – While you will learn a lot about modern Iranians, but there are far better one man shows to test your theatre wings with. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – If this is one of the best English language touring shows in Canada at present, we’re in trouble. SKIP IT