Stage Door Review 2023

The Hooves Belonged to the Deer

Saturday, April 1, 2023


by Makram Ayache, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Tarragon Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

April 5-23, 2023

“In the beginning Man created God”

The Tarragon Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre have joined forces to produce Makram Ayache’s new play The Hooves Belonged to the Deer. What a pity that it is a complete waste of time and effort. It’s both confused and confusing, melodramatic, pretentious, clichéd and extraordinarily biased. Hooves is based on autobiographical incidents that Ayache tries to universalize. Unfortunately, to do this he has to distort the presentation of these incidents as well as the Quranic creation story to which he seeks to relate them.

The play begins with a narrator saying, “In the beginning Man created God”. To some this may sound witty, but others will know that it is merely a restatement of Voltaire’s famous saying, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (“Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer”) from 1770. Sadly, this is a suitable introduction to a play of warmed-over ideas.

The action is divided into two plots. One is based on events from Ayache’s own life. As Ayache states in his Playwright’s Note, “I was 15 years old when I first ever came out as gay. And it was to my Christian Youth Pastor. What was a 15-year-old queer Muslim boy doing with a Christian Youth Pastor? His mission was clear: he would bring as many people as possible to the kingdom of Christ ... He promised me that Christ could heal me of homosexuality. He also told me that Allah, the God of my family, was another demon taking me away from the true path. I only needed to give my life to Christ”.

In Hooves, Ayache himself plays the boy Izzy, a Druze rather than Muslim boy of 16, whose family has moved to a small town in Alberta. There is little to do except at the local evangelical Christian church which has X-boxes, pool tables and movie nights. There Izzy finds himself attracted to a robust Canadian Caucasian boy Will, who, to Izzy’s delight is also attracted to Izzy. They have sex after which Izzy feels he has done something wrong.

Why Ayache has changed his avatar’s religion from a well-known one like Islam to a barely-known one like Druze is a mystery that is never explained. Izzy tells Will that Druze, unlike Muslims, believe in reincarnation but that information in no way helps us undertsand the action.

Will tells his mother that he is gay and is fully accepted. Even if the play is based on real life, Izzy, for unknown reasons, comes out not to his parents but to Pastor Isaac. Pastor Isaac teaches Izzy that we are all sinful and tells him all about original sin and the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. The Pastor says that homosexuality is a particularly egregious sin but that devotion to Christ will help to cure him of it. This is the old “pray the gay away” notion that first arose in the US in 1973 after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.

Ayache is very keen to demonize Pastor Isaac and his intent of luring Izzy to Christianity, but his presentation of the situation is heavily skewed. Ayache has Will tell his mother but has Izzy tell the Pastor. Why is that? Is it because Izzy knows that if he comes out to his parents he will be immediately rejected? If that is true, doesn’t the way Izzy’s parents have brought him up for 16 years bear some of the burden for why Izzy feels that being gay is bad, rather than the short time he has been with the Pastor?

Unlike the Bible, there is nothing in the Quran that outright condemns homosexuality. Rather the condemnation appears in the hadith, a compilation of words and actions attributed to or approved by Muhammad collected two centuries after Muhammad’s death. There one finds the death penalty recommended for both the active and passive partner in gay sex. To make Pastor Issac and evangelical Christianity the villain in the play, Ayache does not even allow Izzy’s parents to be characters. We hear what they think, which is the condemnation and eventual disowning of Izzy, but Ayache reports rather than depicts this to lessen its impact. Ayache wants us to think that all of Izzy’s negative views of gayness come from the Pastor, but that can’t be true.

To believe Pastor Isaac, Izzy would have to believe in two crucial ideas absent in his Druze background. One is that there is any such thing as original sin. In the Quran there is a forbidden tree but there is no apple. Both Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree but Adam prays for forgiveness and Allah forgives him. Thus there is no sin to be passed down through generations as in the Bible and no original sin requiring a Redeemer.

The second point is that Pastor Isaac tells Izzy he wants to bring him to Christ, but Jesus, though regarded as a prophet, is not divine in the Quran. For the Druze only the Caliph al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh (985-c.1021) is the incarnation of the divine.

In the play Will, who is unimpressed with the Pastor, asks Izzy why he spends so much time with him. It is a good question for which the play provides no answer. Contrary to his intention, Ayache makes Izzy look more like a masochist than the Pastor like the aggressor. Also, simply in terms of logic, if Izzy is truly in love with Will, then why does Izzy want to be “cured” of his gayness which will thus cause him not to love Will and to lose someone who loves him?

The subplot in the Pastor Isaac scenes is the Pastor’s estrangement from his son Jake from his first marriage. The Pastor kicked Jake out of the house for being gay only to find that he was living on the streets in Vancouver. In the play father and son reconcile, but it is clear that both the Pastor and his pregnant wife Rebecca are irrationally worried about having someone like Jake around when she gives birth. This, of course, leads to Jake falling out with the Pastor again. The only point of this subplot seems to be to show up the Pastor’s hypocrisy (i.e., he does not have his own house in order) but it could easily be excised since it has nothing to do with the plot centring on Izzy.

The plot that runs parallel with the Pastor-Izzy plot is a loony reimagining of the Garden of Eden story. The Narrator mentions the phrase "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. One might have thought a sensible playwright would leave this cliché alone. After all, lots of movies have been made on this subject and not all of them pornographic. But no, Ayache actually chooses to dramatize it.

What makes Ayache’s Eden scenes so confusing is that he imagines the pair as living not just at the beginning of time but in the Middle Ages and in the present. The anachronism of having Aadam [sic] and Hawa (the name of Eve in the hadith) communicate by cellphone is a cause of much laughter. Designer Anahita Dehbonehie clothes the two in modern-day western Asian garb, although Aadam’s sheer embroidered shirt is meant to suggest a non-archetypal masculinity.

Hawa is not happy that Aadam is so often out in the desert that surrounds the Garden. We discover he is tending one of the “white-skinned northerners” (apparently Crusaders) who have been wreaking havoc on Muslims. (Why do Aadam and Hawa speak of the “ ortherners" as if they were an alien tribe when they are their direct descendants?) It so happens that the “white-skinned northerner” Aadam tends to is Steve, and although Aadam has managed get Hawa pregnant, it is clear that he and Steve are romantically attached. It is also unclear whether Steve is also the devil Iblis, who rather than tempting Aadam, goes to pick the apple itself and then offers it to Aadam.

Once we arrive at Act 2, Izzy and Will have moved to Calgary, the New York of Alberta” as Will thinks, and suddenly they are going to discos and doing ecstasy. One only wonders why writers like Ayache still perpetuate this ancient cliché of big city gay life. For his birthday Izzy wants to celebrate by going into the club’s backroom with his friends Reza and Will. After a certain amount of writhing about Izzy is shocked to discover what goes on there. He sees Reza and Will having sex, breaks up with Will and cuts off Reza as a friend. The play ends with the completely unexplained death of a major character and two coups de théâtre – one simultaneously depicting Izzy’s (unjustified) revenge on Pastor Isaac with Hawa’s investigation of the forbidden tree, the other focussing on Hawa’s speaking of hope and peace in the future during a special stage effect.

One assumes that director Peter Hinton-Davis ends the play with these two coups de théâtre in order to make us forget all the nonsense that has gone before. All we have seen are clichés and stereotypes brought to life with no insight gained into Islam, even less into Druze, none into gayness or conversion therapy, or the Biblical or Quranic versions of the creation story.

All we have seen is that Izzy is a character who takes no responsibility for anything he does. If things do not go well, he blames others. The Pastor is responsible for his feeling gayness is a sin, even though it’s Izzy who keeps going to the Pastor even when Will says the Pastor is useless. It’s Izzy who blames Will and Reza for betraying him even though he was the one who suggested going into the backroom and urged them on. At the end Izzy takes revenge on Pastor Isaac, but not his parents even though they’re the ones who disowned him.

The self-serving nature of Ayache’s play and his attempt to suggest events in his life have something to say about Christianity and colonialism is extraordinarily pretentious and narrow-minded. Druze admits no converts, but Islam was spread as much by conversion and conquest as Christianity was. Has Ayache never heard of the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire or the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates?

The cast do what they can to give their cardboard characters life, but there is only so much they can do. Eric Wigston succeeds in making the Caucasian Canadian Will feel like the only realistic character in the play, one who does not merely say words but sincerely means whatever he says. Throughout the action he is the only sensible character and though Izzy says he loves Will he never follows any of Will’s advice.

Of the actors who play two roles Bahareh Yaraghi is best at drawing subtlety from each character. Pastor Isaac’s wife Rebecca, a convert to Christianity from Islam, ought to seem like a good person. But Yaraghi manages with small changes of intonation and gestures to show that she is as prejudiced against gay people, Jake in particular, as the Pastor is, thus allowing a glint of malice to shine through Rebecca’s façade of niceness.

As Hawa, Yaraghi is reduced to making Ayache’s highly artificial language sound natural. Yaraghi delivers the final speech of the play, a long series of platitudes about peace and togetherness, that sounds soothing but means almost nothing. Yaraghi lends such passion to Ayache’s words that she almost convinces you that Ayache is saying something important.

Ryan Hollyman has unenviable task of playing yet another ineffectual Christian minister, Pastor Isaac, after his turn as Vicar Menrath in Marius von Mayenburg’s Martyr earlier this year. A Christian evangelical preacher is such an easy target nowadays that the figure is much more suitable for a satire like Martyr than a would-be serious play like Hooves. Nevertheless, Hollyman soldiers on with his hokey lines about virtue and sin even though on opening night they provoked gales of unintended laughter. Ayache’s clichéd portrayal of a Christian pastor made it even more difficult to believe that he could have any effect on a disturbed pupil like Izzy.

American actor Noor Hamdi clearly distinguished between his two characters, Aadam and Reza. For Aadam Hamdi uses a deep, resonant voice that well suits the father of mankind and captures the pain mixed with pleasure of his attraction to Steve. As Reza, Hamdi uses a higher tone marked with the upspeak and vocal fry associated with stereotypical gay male characters. It should be unnecessary to signal a character’s sexuality this way, but Ayache has give Reza barely even two dimensions.

Unlike Yaraghi or Hamdi, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski does nothing at all to distinguish the two, or perhaps three, characters he plays. Director Peter Hinton-Davis has Shepherd-Gawinski remain shirtless for so much of the action that we don’t even have a clothing change to help us tell who is who. All we can tell is that Jake is angry and Steve, unless he is also Iblis (i.e., Satan), is weak. Even when Shepherd-Gawinski was, for unknown reasons, playing a horse, I still thought he was playing an angry human until the dialogue made his species clear.

The playwright Makram Ayache has the unusual task of playing himself, or at least his avatar Izzy. What is rather depressing about this situation is that Ayache seems unable to make Izzy even vaguely interesting. It may be that since Ayache is essentially playing himself he thinks he needs to do nothing to make the character work. That is a mistake. Ayache still needs to create a believable character and be able to project that figure into the auditorium. As it is Ayache’s performance as Izzy is unvaryingly dull. Eric Wigston has to do all the work to make it appear that Izzy and Will and in love. Wigston and Hamdi have to do all the work to make is appear that Izzy is living a more exciting life in Calgary than in his parents’ small town.

As a note I wonder why the Tarragon Theatre persists in describing the plot of the play thus: “When Izzy’s family immigrates to a small rural town, the young queer Muslim boy becomes the salvation pet project to the local Pastor Isaac”. Has no one done their homework? Izzy says he is Druze several times and Druze is not Muslim. It’s a separate religion. That’s why Druze believers have been persecuted by Muslims since the Druze religion was proclaimed in 1016AD. In 1956, the Druze Elders specifically requested that the Israeli government recognize the Druze separately from the Arab Muslims and that Druze males be subject to the mandatory draft that Jewish Israelis (both male and female) were required to perform. Druze have been part of the Israel military, unlike Muslims, ever since.

For anyone interested in seeing the world from the point of view of a gay Druze male, Ayache’s Hooves will provide you with nothing. Instead, turn to the novels of Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. His third novel The Hakawati (2008), a novel about storytelling, is overflowing with all the insight into the human condition and marked by all the irresistible pull of narrative that Ayache’s Hooves so desperately lacks.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski as Steve, Bahareh Yaraghi as Hawa, Makram Ayache as Izzy, Eric Wigston as Will and Noor Hamdi as Aadam; Eric Wigston as Will and Makram Ayache as Izzy; Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac, Makram Ayache as Izzy and Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski as a horse; Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski as Jake and Bahareh Yaraghi as Rebecca; Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac (in background), Eric Wigston as Will, Makram Ayache as Izzy and Bahareh Yaraghi as Hawa. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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