Stage Door Review
Monday, February 20, 2023
by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Anahita Dehbonehie & Guillermo Verdecchia
• Soulpepper Theatre Company & The Segal Centre, Young Centre,Toronto
February 16-March 5, 2023;
• Segal Centre, Montreal
March 19-April 2, 2023
Marjan: “Do you know, sometimes I think you can only speak one language? You can know two but… I feel like I’m disappearing”
English, the first play by American playwright Sanaz Toossi, won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play in 2022. The co-production of the play by the Soulpepper Theatre Company and The Segal Centre for Performing Arts demonstrates the folly of judging the value of plays by annual awards. English clearly seems like a first play. The action is not dramatic. Conflicts disappear rather than being resolved. Characters have secrets we assume will be revealed but never are. But worst of all the play suggests that there is no value, other than getting a job, to learning a foreign language and no value to travelling outside one’s home country. This is all rather rich coming from a playwright who is the daughter of parents who fled Iran for the US after the Iranian Revolution (1978-79).
All of the action is set in classroom for ESL (English as a Second Language) in Toossi’s mother’s hometown of Karaj, Iran, in 2009. Here four Iranians assemble triweekly attend an English as a second language class to prepare for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam that will be a key to obtaining a better job or even a job abroad. The class teacher is Marjan, who lived in Manchester for nine years before returning to Iran. Her rule for this class of advanced speaker is “English Only”. Naturally in the course of the play we come to know the four students, though, in fact, we know them only in relation to the class and to learning English and find out very little about them as people.
Aylin Oyan Salahshoor plays Goli, a young woman who likes the sound of English, even when it is sung with an accent like her favourite performer, the Columbian pop star Shakira. Salahshoor makes the awkward Goli an endearing character even if Salahshoor is the most difficult of the five cast members to understand.
Ghazal Azarbad plays Elham, a woman with quite the opposite personality to Goli. She is tough, has taken the TOEFL several times before, and doubts whether the class teacher is really capable of bringing her up to the level of proficiency she needs to pass. Elham hates English but needs it to get into a medical programme in Melbourne, Australia. She wishes it was still the age of Cyrus the Great (c.600-530BC) when Farsi was the language people had to know. (In fact, it would have been Old Persian, but let’s not let facts get in the way.) Azarbad’s performance brims with aggro throughout and we see that any number of factors could set it off, with Azarbad indicating an insecurity that undergirds the bluster.
Banafsheh Taherian plays the oldest member of the class, Roya, who wishes to learn English because her son in Canada is raising his child in English. The son will only let come to Canada if she has learned English, a fact she pitifully tries to prove in the many voice messages she leaves for a son who never answers his phone. It’s a sad, rather odd, story. But anyone can see, as should Roya, that the problem has more to do with Roya’s son than with language. Taherian gives a moving account of Roya’s growing worry and frustration. Unfortunately, Toossi has the character drop out f the class, and out of the play, so that we never know the outcome of Roya’s tale.
The most mysterious member of the class is Omid played by Sepehr Reybod. Toossi makes none of the reasons for his behaviour clear. Why is he in a class that the rules bar him from? Why is he flirting with his teacher, a married woman? Why, since he has an America passport, does he not want to return to the States just when Iran is entering a period of increased authoritarianism? Toossi gives us no useful clues. Given nothing to work with, Reybod manages to build up the only kind of character that is available to him – a character who seems well-meaning but who only presents a façade to the world.
Ghazal Partou plays the teacher of the class Marjan. What Partou strongly conveys is a person who has taught the same material so many times that her sense of spontaneity is gone and her overpraise of students seems like an attempt to communicate an enthusiasm she has already lost. This is the most richly imagined of the five characters and Partou does full justice to the part. We, in fact, long to know more about Marjan, but Toossi is not forthcoming.
Toossi’s technique in writing a play set in Iran is to have the characters speak in a slow, accented English to indicate they are speaking English and in a rapid, unaccented English to indicate they are speaking Farsi. A major failing of the production is that this distinction is not clear. Of the four only Ghazal Azarbad as Elham is able to master this technique. This is failing both in the direction of Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia and in the dialect coaching of Diane Pitblado.
Just last year in Indecent (2015), playwright Paula Vogel used the same idea to distinguish characters when they spoke Yiddish (unaccented) versus when they spoke English (accented). The large cast under Joel Greenberg’s brought off this tricky technique so perfectly that we were never in doubt about which language was being spoken.
Other difficulties lie with the play itself. How Omid, who turns out to be born in the US, was even allowed to take a course barred to native speakers is a mystery. Why he is taking the course is another mystery, especially when he does not plan to return to the US. His explanation of wanting to practice his English isn’t good enough. There are many other ways of practicing a foreign language besides joining a course where the level of conversation will be so rudimentary.
Toossi has included Omid primarily to give the play the subplot of a romance between Omid and the married teacher Marjan. Given that Omid should not even be in the class and that he has no motivation for leading Marjan on, the romance comes off as totally artificial, present only as a way for Toossi to enlist our sympathy for Marjan.
If Toossi allows us to know little that is useful about Omid, she lets us know even less about Marjan. The question of why Marjan returned to Iran after nine years in England arises several times but never receives a satisfying answer. Marjan is married but Toossi gives us no information about her husband or home life and, in general, no information for understanding her. Late in the play Marjan makes a mistake in teaching, but why she does we never know.
In her Background Notes, Paula Wing states, “Our mother tongue is at the heart of who we are, central to the creation of our identities.… This play examines what happens when we step out of the language that has built us word by word, phrase by phrase. It asks: what happens when we are not speaking in our own words? Are we still ourselves? If a new language is an opportunity for reinvention, what do we have to give up in exchange?”
It is true that Wing accurately summarizes the points that Toossi makes. It is also true that they are nonsense. If our mother tongue is central to our identity, how is it that everyone who speaks the same language is not the same. L.L. Zamenhof (1869-1917), the inventor of artificial language Esperanto thought that if everyone spoke the same language there would be no more misunderstandings and no more war. Yet, how many unilingual countries have had civil wars? Just look at the students in Marjan’s class. Do they all have the same identity?
Wing presents Toossi’s view that when we are not speaking our own words, we are not ourselves. So was Irishman Samuel Beckett not himself when he wrote all of his major work in French, or were the Pole Joseph Conrad and the Russian Vladimir Nabokov not themselves when they wrote their major works in English?
Wing asks, as does Toossi’s play, what we give up when we learn a new language. I have taught advanced ESL classes and I have in three different foreign languages at various times. My experience is that we give up nothing. With every language we learn and especially with every language we live in we gain entry to a new world.
No one language can be exactly translated into any other language. By living in another language we learn there are new ways peculiar to each language of verbally expressing and mentally framing familiar experiences. The most important thing we learn is to be able to look at our own mother tongue from the outside and see how it forces us to think about the world in certain ways.
Toossi’s notion that our mother tongue makes us who we are is not a reason to forego learning a foreign language but rather a reason to learn as many as possible in order to learn the wonderful multiplicity of ways in which people view the world.
Toossi’s notion that bilingualism is somehow harmful to the psyche because the speaker feels she doesn’t belong to one world or the other is one that would certainly appeal to a large swath of the American public so fearful of the rise of Spanish. But it is an odd message to present in an officially bilingual country like Canada.
It raises the question why Soulpepper and The Segal Centre are even presenting the play. If they wanted to present a play about an immigrant torn between Iran and Canada, there are plays by Iranian-Canadians to choose rather from an American born to Iranian émigrés. The best exploration of this topic I’ve seen is the play Un (2012) by Mani Soleymanlou, who was born in Tehran rather than Orange County, and details the struggle to become Canadian, more specifically Québécois, while retaining his iranité. He comes to see, on trips back to Iran, that the country his émigré parents love so much has disappeared.
The theatre companies could, in fact, have side-stepped the entire Euro-American world and chosen a play by an Iranian playwright. If the point of the programming was to show us how Iranians think, why receive that view second-hand as processed by an American? Toronto’s Modern Times Stage Company has presented at least three important Iranian plays The Death of the King in 2016 by Bahram Beyzaie, Aurash in 2010 also by Beyzaie and Stories from the Rains of Love and Death in 2003 by Abas Na’lbandian. Beyzaie alone has written more than 50 plays and there are more Iranian playwrights than Beyzaie and Na’lbandian whose work has been translated.
In any case, to anyone who has lived in a foreign language, Toossi’s play will be troubling. Marjan, who had insisted so strenuously on “English Only” in the classroom at the end switches into Farsi, and not non-accented-English-as-Farsi, but actual Farsi without surtitles. This reinforces the play’s view that learning a foreign language is too painful and somehow requires the sacrifice of your identity. It’s better to stay in Iran as it slides into totalitarianism even when you could escape, like Omid, than suffer the pain of exile from your homeland. These are likely not the points Toossi wants her play to make, but, those are the conclusions where the actions leads us. Thus, Toossi sends exactly the bleak message about immigrants that arch-conservatives would like to hear.
Photo: Ghazal Azarbad as Elham, Banafsheh Taherian as Roya, Ghazal Partou as Marjan, Aylin Oyan Salahshoor as Goli and Sepehr Reybod as Omid; Ghazal Partou as Marjan, Banafsheh Taherian as Roya, Ghazal Azarbad as Elham, Aylin Oyan Salahshoor as Goli and Sepehr Reybod as Omid; Ghazal Partou as Marjan and Sepehr Reybod as Omid. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit www.soulpepper.ca or www.segalcentre.org.