Stage Door Review

Un.Deux.Trois.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩/✭✭✭✩/✭✭✭

written & directed by Mani Soleymanlou

Orange Noyée & Théâtre français du CNA, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

October 13-16, 2022

“Vous nous avez tous instrumntalisés”

In terms of the forces required, Mani Soleymanlou’s trilogy Un.Deux.Trois. must be the largest theatre piece that co-presenters Canadian Stage and Théâtre français de Toronto have ever offered to the public. The work, now in the midst of a cross-country tour, is 4½ hours long including two short intermissions and requires a cast of 36. Publicity about the trilogy will tell you the plays are about conflicts of identity. Publicity does not tell you that these plays are likely the most metatheatrical plays you may ever see.

Soleymanlou’s constant undercutting of the theatrical illusion clearly parallels his constant undercutting of any notion of a single identity. Does Soleymanlou really require 4½ to tell his story? Does he require 36 actors to make this point? The answer to both questions is “No”. Un (2012), which is a tight, intriguing take on Soleymanlou’s quest for identity, becomes abstracted into a subject for analysis in Deux (2013). In Trois (2014) questions surrounding identity explode uncontained and lead to at least six false endings. After this, the audience leaves exhausted, not exhilarated.

Un.

This is great pity since the first play Un is one of the best identity plays written in Canada. I wrote a long review of it in 2013 when it toured to Toronto. In it Soleymanlou tells us of being born in Tehran, his family moving to Paris after the Iranian Revolution when he was a child. He grew up and went to high school in Toronto, then moved to Ottawa and finally settled in Montreal and went to the National Theatre School (NTS).

What precipitates the main question of Un is that the students at the NTS, who have a wide range of backgrounds, are asked to present a play about where they come from. This presents a major conundrum for Soleymanlou since he may have been born in Iran, but he remembers nothing about it. Besides this, since the Revolution and then the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests which resulted in the torture and killing of members of the populace, Iran is no longer the same country his parents left. He has a Canadian passport but does he feel Canadian? Instead, he feels he is still searching for who he is, and realizes that his need for a quest may be what gives him his identity.

In 2013 Soleymanlou presented the play alone in a midst of regularly lined up stacking chairs. Now that Un is presented as part of a trilogy, Soleymanlou still presents Un in the midst of rows of stacking chairs, but now the chairs are occupied by 35 actors. They are mostly silent and merely focus on Soleymanlou as he tells his story. But, for unknown reasons, bit by bit they start to leave the stage in small groups until by the end Soleymanlou is left with only a few actors around him.

Another difference is that a couple of the actors have lines that were not in the play in 2013. The most important of these comes when Soleymanlou is discussing the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan which became a symbol of the government’s violence. At that point a young women, an immigrant from Ukraine, speaks of what is happening in her home country. This addition is clearly meant to make Soleymanlou’s point that immigrants to Canada today, are still fleeing violence in places they might have called “home”.

Un is a play that, on its own, I would recommend to anyone. When I reviewed it in 2013, I thought it was just a quirk of the author to have the play start after several abortive attempts because he was not ready. At the time I thought this was just Soleymanlou’s way of distancing us from the play, of making sure we were aware we were watching him performing an autobiographical play. Little did I know until I saw Deux and Trois how central metatheatricality was to Soleymanlou’s whole conception of presenting autobiographical material.

Deux.

The play Deux (2013) is a play whose central subject is the play Un. As such it does not stand on its own and can’t be recommended to anyone who has not seen Un. In fact, Deux is significantly less interesting than Un.

In Deux, Soleymanlou gives us a second speaker who is meant to represent the Other, the Canadian-born citizen as opposed to the immigrant citizen. This Other is Emmanuel Schwartz, a Montréalais and classmate of Soleymanlou’s from the NTS. Unlike the revised Un, there are no other actors on stage but these two. The action begins with Soleymanlou apparently teaching Schwartz to perform Un. They go over lines from Un with Soleymanlou correcting Schwartz’s mistakes. Why they should be doing this is rather an enigma since why would a Canadian-born half-Jewish actor be learning to perform an Iranian-born Muslim’s autobiographical play?

Deux thus begins from a far more radical stance than Un. The several false starts that begin Un highlight the play as performance. Teaching another actor an autobiographical role that does not reflect that actor’s life suggests that once a biography becomes theatre it becomes fiction. If it is fiction it can be passed on to anyone else. Soleymanlou is thus making a fundamental critique of the current fashionable notion that only certain people can speak of certain subjects based on their ethnic background. This critique is carried to its limit in Trois.

The remainder of Deux functions as an analysis of Un. Soleymanlou performs scenes that he left out of Un, such as the time a Jewish girl told him the meaning of his given name. Mani (216-74ad) is the name of the Persian founder of Manichaeism, a dualistic religion that believes life is an eternal struggle between good and evil, light and dark. The notion of dualism fits in perfectly with the title Deux, but it also reflects the project in Deux in which Soleymanlou tries to find some commonality with Schwartz.

Soleymanlou naively assumes that Schwartz, being half Jewish, will share the same feeling of being an outsider that Soleymanlou does. Schwartz, however, was born in Montreal and it is his father, not his mother who is Jewish. As he explains to Soleymanlou, since Jewishness is matrilineal he is not technically Jewish. His mother is Catholic and both parents are non-observant. Therefore, his and Soleymanlou’s experiences are totally different except that Soleymanlou’s Muslim parents are also non-observant. At least both actors like Michael Jackson.

In Un Soleymanlou was asked to speak about his Iranian background about which he knew nothing and had to buy a book  to read about it. In Deux Soleymanlou asks Schwartz to speak about his Jewish background about which Schwartz knows nothing. Soleymanlou has thus made the same false assumption that the NTS did in assuming that a person of a certain ethnicity would automatically be an expert on that ethnicity.

At the end of Deux Schwartz admits that as a cis, white, hetero male, he has never had the impulse Soleymanlou has to define himself and he says he envies the fact that Soleymanlou has such as quest.

Trois.

In Trois (2014) all 36 actors return to the stage and choose seats among the 42 that have been on stage since the beginning and are all that constitutes a set. The play begins with a request to rise for the national anthem, but we note that not all of the 36 do. The singing begins but not all of those standing, including Soleymanlou and Schwartz, sing along. The group’s reaction to the anthem provides a foretaste of the clashes in point of view that Trois will explore.

One of the group, a young man, steps forward and notes that there are tensions within the group. He has studied qi gong (氣功), an ancient Chinese form of meditation combining meditation, movement and breathing. He thinks that leading the group through a few qi gong exercises may help lead the group to self-healing and the release of stress. When the group balks at this, he suggests that they play a game, “Who are you?” Soleymanlou and Schwartz are all for this thinking that we will learn how diverse the population of Canada is and how we can all get along. Soleymanlou’s goal is to find how “le ‘Je’ sois au service du ‘Nous’” (“How the ‘I’ can be of service to the ‘We’”). What they discover is quite different.

Initially, actors, all Francophone, speak into the two standing mics and revel their background and respond to questions about whether they identify with Canada, Quebec, la Francophonie, where they were born, if not Canada or Quebec, or some combination of these. Very soon the speakers move from these questions to the airing of grievances. We hear from everyone in the group except Soleymanlou and Schwartz every possible grievance concerning identity that you have ever heard.

Most are centred on Quebec and the question whether the Québécois are more racist than the rest of Canada and, if so, why. We hear from an Asian-Québécois that she feels more accepted as a Quebecker when she is in Toronto than when she is in Quebec, where people always ask her where she’s from. Soleymanlou asks one young Black man where he’s from and when he answers “Canada”, Soleymanlou asks about his parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents until the man answers Bathurst. We hear from the so-called “Francophones hors Québec” and find out they hate that appellation. We hear from Indigenous people who say French is their native language by default because no one knows their real native language anymore. One woman is learning Wendat from a teacher who is teaching himself Wendat.

There is a debate about the necessity of learning English to survive and the correlative that the learning of English will drown out knowledge of French. The topics begin to move beyond identity as Francophones to sexual identity. Two people identify as gender-fluid and explain how they feel isolated from French since it is so highly gendered a language as opposed to English in which they can express themselves more freely without reference to gender. The topics even move away from language when one woman claims that the oppression of gay people began with colonialism. This is countered by an Indigenous male who says there is evidence that gay people were already being oppressed by their own nations long before Europeans arrived.

Every argument is followed by a counter-argument. Even the notion of “diversity” is vilified as a means to turn groups against each other and thus not be able to form a unified front to oppose legislation that concerns them all. Soleymanlou and Schwartz try in vain to get the group back on topic. As Soleymanlou says, “Comment on parle au ‘nous’ si on est tous sur le ‘je’?” (“How can we speak of the ‘we’ if we are all fixed on the ‘I’?”) Indeed, one member of the group, an immigrant from Congo, is amazed that the group has no conception of how extremely privileged they are to have “identity” be their main concern rather than how to survive torture and death.

While it is instructive to hear such a wide array of opinions and complaints, theatrically Trois feel like a chaos of people shouting abuse at each other with no resolution in sight. There are two sides to this fact. On the one hand, an hour of people shouting and trending increasingly off-topic soon becomes tedious and annoying. On the other, the mere fact that this seemingly chaotic shouting match has surtitles mean that it is not, in fact, chaotic at all. The anger conjured up by all 36 actors feels so real and spontaneous, we forget that we have been watching actors acting. They have been performing a “game” going completely out of control and Soleymanlou has brilliantly managed to make what is well-rehearsed and translated seem as if it were completely spontaneous.

This is a realization that likely will not occur to audience members until after the show is over. But Soleymanlou has underscored the metatheatricality of Trois shortly before it ends. He has the actors suddenly turn on him, accusing him of hiring Francophones from every part of the country and from a wide selection of ethnicities simply to use them and their arguments to make up his play. “Vous nous avez tous instrumentalisés”, one young Black man shouts at him. Surprisingly, Soleymanlou admits that this is true. Not only that but rather than showing the unity of Canada in his play as he had intended, he realized that a show of anger and division will sell more tickets and a play using people from all of Canada and from varied ethnicities will help get him a grant.

With this Soleymanlou moves way beyond metatheatricality to a meta-discussion about the politics of creating theatre in Canada. And, as the group points out in a further irony, the other 34 actors have all been hired in service of creating a piece about diversity by two cis, white, hetero males, namely Soleymanlou and Schwartz.

With irony piled upon irony Trois could have ended simply. In answer to the question of where can people go where there are no such problems with identity, one young woman rises to sing “Over the Rainbow”. “Ah”, we think, “that is the perfect ending”. But no. Soleymanlou provides several more endings. The group descends into mortal combat. They calm down and gradually start a communal dance. Then they are all blown up. Then they rise again as zombies and dance to “Thriller”. Then they collapse and rise again. After they eliminate Soleymanlou, they all break into “We Are The World”.

By this time, any interest or patience we might have maintained during the earlier shouting match about identity has evaporated and we pray that this last song really is the last song.

This is all very unfortunate because if Soleymanlou could have shortened Trois by a half hour or more so that we could see more clearly how he deliberately created a debate devolving into chaos and heard how the actors he hired turn on him for using him, if he had done this Trois could be seen as a seminal play in Canadian drama. It’s a metadrama to end all metadramas and an identity play to end all identity plays. Indeed, after this trilogy it will be very difficult to watch any autobiographical identity play again without realizing the artifice and selectivity that go into its creation.

Un.Deux.Trois. can be recommended only to die-hard dévoté.e.s of Canadian drama who can appreciate 4½ hours of drama about drama about drama. Schwartz at one point calls the trilogy “post-post-post-moderne”. Can a play about identity survive all this meta-ness? The trilogy clearly demonstrates that it cannot. The trilogy ends in chaos followed by the demise of the one whose identity was its subject. Soleymanlou seems to conclude that his identity cannot be found in any essence or even in any quest but in a state so self-reflexive and so self-contradictory that it does not even exist. The trilogy as a whole extends this notion from Soleymanlou to Canada as a whole and comes to the same conclusion. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (then in Persia, now in Turkey) once  wrote, “Εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν” (“We both are and are not”).

Christopher Hoile


Tour: • Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, Place des Arts, Montréal

October 20-23, 2022;

 • Le Théâtre le Trident, Québec

October 27-29, 2022;

 • Théâtre populaire d’Acadie, Caraquet, 

Novembre 2-3, 2022;

 • Théâtre l’Escaouette, Moncton

November 5-6, 2022;

 • Théâtre la Seizième, Vancouver

November 11-12, 2022;

 • Théâtre Cercle Molière, Winnipeg

November 17-20, 2022

Photos: Cast of Un.Deux.Trois., Mani Soleymanlou (centre with beard); Emmanuel Schwartz and Mani Soleymanlou; ensemble in Trois. © 2022 Orange Noyée.

For tickets visit www.orangenoyee.com.