Mani Soleymanlou's One covers familiar terrain

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Written and directed by Mani Soleymanlou. Codirected by Alice Ronfard. An Orange Noyée production, presented by the Cultch and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Tuesday, January 28. Continues until February 8

In his autobiographical solo, One, Mani Soleymanlou, who was born in Iran and spent much of his childhood in Paris before settling in Canada, takes on the serious subjects of identity and oppression. He’s a likable performer, playful and sincere. And his show left me stone cold.

There were moments that almost caught me. At one point, he talks about flying with his family from Paris to Tehran, for instance. In Amsterdam, as the family prepares to transfer from KLM to Iran Air, his mother disappears into the washroom and reappears, completely covered and veiled. The look in her eyes has changed. In another passage, Soleymanlou evokes an evening in which he gazed at shooting stars in Canada as an adult, and another summer night when a shooting star terrified him as a child in Iran—because he thought it was a rocket. These pieces resonate because they use sensual details to conjure emotion.

They also use the body. Soleymanlou has been blessed with a dancer’s responsiveness. So when he’s lying back, looking at the stars, his chest is so full of the experience you can almost smell the night air. And when he transforms from a hectoring ayatollah into his adoring populace, which sings and dances to “I Will Follow Him”, the contrast between frightening rigidity and pop-culture bounciness is a pleasure.

But for most of the performance, Soleymanlou sits, talks, describes, and discusses. And he stays on the surface of things. The script needs more relationships and stories to take it deeper. It needs to get more personally specific. In the play’s long coda, Soleymanlou describes spending an evening with an imaginary companion in the liberated—and hoped-for—Tehran of the future. But the friend is generic, a convention. We’ve never met him before, so we don’t know exactly how he’s suffering under the current regime—and the coda falls flat.

Thematically, the play’s terrain is familiar. In One, an individual who is suspended between cultures attempts to define his identity. Is Soleymanlou’s experience of Iran profound enough that he can call himself Iranian? Not really, but he cares deeply about the citizens of Iran, who are struggling for freedom from religious and political oppression. Fair enough: he carries both cultures within him. But this notion of composite identity—part Iranian, part Canadian, in this case—is the point of resolution that scripts about mixed cultural heritage have been reaching at least since David Henry Hwang wrote FOB in 1980. The exploration of mixed cultural identities remains important and valid but, if you don’t find the right poetics, you won’t engage your audience. If you want to see a show that does find a fresh and engaging balance, try A Brimful of Asha.

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