Theatre review: Bashir Lazhar

In the wake of Barack Obama's historic Presidential win, there has been a lot of talk about a new "post-racial" or "post-ethnic" world. While this type of buzz-speak is always rather vague, I took it to mean that it's time to start looking at the actual individuals behind catch-all categories like race and immigration.

It is interesting that this same week saw the premier of Tarragon Theatre's Bashir Lazhar. Although it cuts across topics of immigration, violence, childhood and teaching, it is ultimately a portrait of one, complicated man who both embodies and transcends the grand ideas. It is an audacious play, covering vast amounts of territory for a one-person, 80 minute show.

Written by Quebec Playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière and translated by Morwyn Brebner, Bashir Lazhar is about an Algerian immigrant who becomes the substitute teacher for a grade 6 class. The class, as we learn, has been collectively traumatized by a recent horror. And, through a series of flashbacks, Lazhar's own immense suffering is revealed. The play is simultaneously a homage to teaching, a meditation on violence and loss, and an exploration of the modern immigrant experience. It's a lot to fit into one show, and the script struggles under the weight of its ideas.

To her credit, de la Chenelière does a nice job of weaving past and present into a compelling narrative. Time and place flows fluidly together throughout the play, nicely mirroring Lazhar's expansive mental terrain. But with so much going on all at once, both physically and thematically, it's easy to lose track of what Bashir Lazhar is actually trying to communicate. This is not a huge problem. I suspect de la Chenelière is making a point about the bundles of contradiction and competing ideas that make up every individual, something evocatively illustrated by Lazhar. Still, this character study is more than a little exhausting.

As Lazhar, Raoul Bhaneja turns in an impressive performance. The script affords precious little breathing space, and Bhaneja manages to find some nice moments. It would be easy for a lesser actor to fall behind the material and make the whole thing appear to be more of an endurance test than a piece of theatre. Fortunately, Bhaneja manages to stay on top of the material and inject a moving humanity into the breakneck narrative.

The frequent shifts in time and location put pressure on the production to make sure the audience doesn't get left behind. And for the most part, the staging of Bashir Lazhar does not disappoint. Rebecca Picherack's lighting design deserves particular recognition. It seamlessly conveys each moment without becoming intrusive or distracting.

The play ends on a rather odd note with a protracted audio segment. Combined with the playwright's whirlwind of themes, the ultimate result makes Bashir Lazhar feel unfinished. Although it is a very interesting play, it probably could have stood for a few more weeks in the shop.

Bashir Lazhar continues at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until December 7th. For tickets and information, visit the Tarragon website.

Photo: Raoul Bhaneja as Bashir Lazhar. By Cylla von Tiedemann.