Review: Bashir Lazhar

The refugee process in Canada has always been thought to be a lackadaisical walk-in-the-park by Canadians.  But Quebec playwright Evelyne de la Chenelièère attempts to put that notion on its end by giving us a portrait of refugee claimant Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian attempting to escape the suffering of his homeland.

But Chenelière not only covers this modern immigration piece also attempts to cover some very large ground here including violence, loss and the relationship between teacher and student.  Indeed for its very short 66 minute length, Chenelière packs so much into her play that in the end the audience and we are left wanting more.

Bashir Lazhar (David Marr) is an Algerian immigrant who lands a job as a substitute teacher after the grade six class’ previous teacher leaves under rather horrific circumstances.  As the play progresses we discover the level to which the students have been traumatized by the departure of their previous teacher and witness Bashir, through a series of flashbacks, relive his own suffering.

David Marr stars in the Pi Theatre production of Bashir Lazhar
David Marr stars in the Pi Theatre production of Bashir Lazhar

As Lazhar, David Marr attempts to keep up with Chenelière and the many layers that she has given this story.  While only just over sixty minutes in length, Chenelière moves at such a break neck speed trying to cover all of her themes, one couldn’t help but think Marr was just a tiny step behind at times.   But that is a small criticism given the audience at times were probably a step or two behind Mr Marr as well.

Jerguš Oprsal’s set and lighting work well with the various locales and times that must be portrayed in the show but the real technical star here is Jamie Nesbitt’s projection design in conjunction with Corwin Ferguson’s drawings.  There are very few times that a live theatre audience is provided with what might be considered “special effects” and it was indeed fascinating to watch these here.

The problem with Bashir Lazhar does not ultimately rest with this production but in the original, or perhaps even the translation.  We understand that translator Morwyn Brebner, playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, originally toyed with the idea of moving the locale from Quebec to Toronto.  Fortunately Brebner had  the sense to leave it to the original location but there is that little inkling at the back of the head that wonders what may have been lost in translation.

There is simply too much to cover in 66 minutes.  Canadian audiences would have been better served and perhaps at step with the playwright (and translator) had she focused on Bashir’s immigration process and what got him here rather than exploring a multitude of themes.

Big kudos here though to Pi Theatre who exist to present French-Canadian and other world plays in English.

Bashir Lazhar continues at Performance Works on Granville Island through March 21st. Tickets are available through Tickets Tonight or by calling 604.684.2787.

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