Haysam Kadri as Bashir Lazhar. Tim Nguyen/Citrus Photography
October 23 to November 2, 2012
EPCOR Centre Motel
I went to see Downstage’s production of Bashir Lazhar this evening as a patron, not a critic. Not because I didn’t think the show worthy of my professional attention. But rather because I had one night to see the play and it was the eve before I was to leave town for Toronto first thing in the morning. In other words, I simply had no time to spend researching and crafting the kind of reviews I like to provide. So quite happily I went to the performance, without my note pad, revelling in the fact that for once I would be able to simply watch a play for pure pleasure and not have to analyze or write anything post curtain.
However, after what I just saw tonight, it would be utterly remiss if I did not try to put down at least a few remarks on what I feel was one of the best written, performed, directed and realized productions I’ve had the pleasure to see in a long while.
The play, written by in French by Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière and translated into English by Morwyn Brebner (later adapted into the Oscar nominated film, Monsieur Lazhar ) tells the story of Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant to Canada who takes a job as a substitute teacher after the regular instructor hangs herself in the classroom. Running in parallel to this tragedy is Lazhar’s own horrific past that slowly is revealed in a series of innovated flashback scenes throughout the play. Despite a rocky start with his class, Mr. Lazhar comes to earn the respect and admiration of his students, but his style of teaching and personal demons find him in hot water with the school’s administration in the most unclichéd and nuanced classroom story one could ask for.
Beautiful writing for the stage only truly comes alive through great performances and Haysam Kadri’s turn as Bashir is pure perfection. At times funny, at times heartbreaking, Kadri penetrates his character with such ferocious intensity that I often found myself holding my breath waiting for his next move. Bashir’s monologue is actually a conversation with several unseen characters throughout the play and Kadri affects the emotion and details so strongly in these moments you could swear upon hearing the other, silent side of the discussion.
Originally written as a one-man show, the Downstage production introduces a second person into the action in the form of a girl whose purpose is mostly movement and illustration of the narrative with the occasional lines to speak. I’ve seen this effect done well and I’ve seen it fail, but I have never seen it so seamlessly and interestingly used in a production. Lara Schmitz as the Girl is fluid and expressive in her movements, strong in her dialogue and always interesting to watch even when her role is to simply sit in the audience as one of Bashir’s students or doodle on the wall sized blackboard panels that back the stage.
Action in the audience and the use of the whole small Motel theater space is just one of the reasons Simon Mallet’s direction is such a joy to watch. Seated around a desk on a raised and sloped stage cleverly designed by Anton de Groot, the audience becomes Bashir’s silent classroom and Mallet takes full advantage of this set up to confidently move his actors around the theatre. But it’s the interaction between the Bashir and the Girl that make this such an achingly beautiful production to watch. Part dance, part struggle, part embrace, Mallet brings these two performers together in movement and dialogue that so enriched the performance, I can’t imagine the show without this element.
For seventy-five minutes I was made to laugh, make to think and had my heart-broken in ways that I live for the theater to do. I can think of no better way to send me back to my hometown than with the knowledge that this kind of exciting production is going on right here, in my new home city of Calgary.
For the guys and the girls – Laugh, cry feel. What more could you want out of a production? SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The story unfolds through layers that are complicated and not always clear. And the storytelling is unconventional. Might be too much for your taste MAYBE SEE IT
For the theater junkie – This is a must all around. SEE IT