By Camyar Chai. Directed by Camyar Chai and Chelsea Haberlin. A Neworld Theatre production. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Tuesday, March 22. Continues until March 26
There are lots of people of colour in this cast, which is great. And Doost (Friend) presents a minority cultural point of view: also great. But, artistically, the show is a bit of a mess, which is too bad.
There’s a core story. Richard Newman plays Tosca, who feels adrift when Javad, the Sufi teacher who helped him to bring order to his life, dies. Once that’s been established, the narrative jumps back in time and we watch Javad grow from childhood eagerness into adult wisdom.
But the telling of this story is pretty loose. Some of the conventions that writer Camyar Chai and his codirector, Chelsea Haberlin, employ are decipherable—maybe. When Javad is young, Sofia Bunting Newman speaks his text and Nadeem Phillip emotes wordlessly. Is Phillip playing Javad’s true, inner self? Perhaps; as Javad matures, Phillip finds his voice and takes over the role as Bunting Newman fades away.
In other stretches, I had zero idea what was going on. Luc Roderique plays an artist—complete with a cliché silk scarf—who is painting a portrait of a Sufi master. Self-contained at first, the artist suddenly starts hurling paint around ecstatically, in mime, beneath a projected image of Tosca being crucified. What the heck? And why did people keep laying dinnerware and then clearing it?
There is one passage that works beautifully. In a metaphor for his spiritual journey, Javad rides his bike uphill. Phillip mimes manic pedalling as Bunting Newman holds a single bicycle wheel on a rod and spins it. Then Javad reaches the top of the mountain. He throws his hands over his head, and his body twists and turns with the wheel as he zigzags his way down the slope. It’s an image of liberation and it’s lovely.
Still, there are other problems. I’m sure the Sufi tradition contains much greater wisdom than I managed to glean from this script. Performers say things like “We are one but the veil has hidden us in duality” and “Plant the tree of friendship, harvest the fruits of love.” (The latter is a quote from the esteemed poet Hafez.) I’m not knocking these ideas, but they didn’t help me to gain insight into the particularities of Sufism.
Performed by six musicians, the songs are often spaciously meditative. But there are too many songs, and if you don’t speak Farsi, most of them deliver limited information.
In the end, though, there’s an undeniable and very welcome spirit of generosity about this offering. One of the performances is very skilled. Phillip, who was last seen as the dithering young bisexual in Cock, delivers a charmingly openhearted and simple portrait of Javad. And all of the performances, including those from the nonprofessionals in the cast, are gifts.
The evening ends on an ecstatic note, with joyous singing and everyone in the audience clapping along. On opening night, this felt very warm. But I wished that I had understood more of what preceded it.