by Lynn on November 25, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following was broadcast on CIUT 89.5 FM today. Friday, November 25, 2011. CIUT, 89.5FM The No name show.

HALLAJ, At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre: WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY?, in the Studio of Young People’s Theatre: RED at the Bluma Appel Theatre.


1) Good Friday morning….Lynn Slotkin, our passionate playgoer is here with her roundup of plays she’s seen this week, namely: HALLAJ, WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? and RED.

Hi Lynn.

These look like a cross-section of cultures and genres. Give us the details.


They are a cross section.

HALLAJ is based a portion of the life of Mansur al-Hallaj, who lived in the 9th century and is largely unknown outside the Islamic World. Hallaj was a poet, philosopher and Sufi mystic who thought God was in every one, thus bringing him into conflict with orthodox Islamic teachings.

Sounds familiar.

That’s presented by Modern Times Stage Company that specializes in producing ancient tales and bringing them into Modern Times.They take these fascinating stories from another culture and make them so accessible to us.

WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? comes from Young People’s Theatre and is about racism, bullying and homophobia.

They do give the name of the play in brackets in the program but I can’t and won’t say the words on radio or anywhere else. One word is the pejorative word for a black person. The other word is the pejorative word for gay.

And finally RED, a play about Mark Rothko, the American contemporary abstract painter. It takes place from 1958 to 1960, examines the nature of art and its creation, and what one would do to bring the art to the public.


2) They all sound contemporary even though one of them is centuries old. Tell us about HALLAJ.


It’s the night before Hallaj’s execution. He is being executed because of his religious beliefs that go against those of the ruling government. He has uttered four words offensive to the regime. He refuses to recant them.

Playwrights Peter Farbridge and Soheil Parsa make us wait to find out what these four words are and tantalize us with false starts. And no I’m not going to tell you what they are.

Much of the play is flashbacks building to where he is at that point. He was happily married but was compelled to leave his wife Jamil to look for God. He arrives back, tired and in rags from his journey but successful. He realizes where God is.

Hallaj learns he is a father. He is emboldened by his beliefs and that always brings him up against the authorities. The authorities will save him and his family if he will recant. He won’t. They then threaten his wife and son.

The story is quite gripping.


3) Does the play do the story justice?


The play is at times gripping but also poetic and dry. Almost vaultingly poetic and I think that just bogs down the proceedings. In an effort to capture the language of the times, sometimes esoteric, it defeats the purpose of telling the story. That said, there are many times when the language does also seem contemporary and is quite funny.

And while I do have a problem with the actual writing, I think Soheil Parsa’s direction is vivid and often compelling. He has such a visual idea of what he wants. A simple sound effect and a sudden square of light illuminated on the floor instantly creates Hallaj’s prison cell. With another lighting effect and sound cue we are in a flashback. We are never in doubt as to where we are—in a flashback or the night before the execution.

Peter Farbridge also plays Hallaj. He certainly moves beautifully, at times suggesting he’s overcome with some bedeviling spirit. He dances with grace. I just wish he was a better actor. He is a bit stodgy in his performance.

I do think that Beatiz Pizano as Jamil, his wife, is arresting, emotional and very moving. The ensemble is committed, the play introduces us to an interesting character we don’t generally know. The production, directed by Parsa, is so inventive and vivid in creating the world of Hallaj all those years ago and yet making him so contemporary.


4) And now WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? From Young People’s Theatre. I take it it’s not a lighthearted romp for kids?



Berend McKenzie has written and performs his play about a sweet, effervescent 16 year old named Buddy who just wants to fit in. He hopes that a popular girl agrees to be his date to a party so his classmates will stop calling him faggot. Hearing that word tumble so innocuously from Buddy’s mouth just catches you up short.

Buddy is gay and of mixed race. His mother was white and his father was black from the West Indies. And he was adopted by a loving couple who didn’t care what colour he was. They just wanted to adopt a kid.

But it’s been rough for Buddy. He has few friends. He’s bullied, ostracized and made to feel terrible about himself. It’s a play about bullies, homophobia, being loved and given the courage to stand up to his tormentors. And of course and unfortunately it’s timely when you consider the recent headlines of children being so bullied they commit suicide.


5) How is the show presented?


Berend McKenzie is an energetic actor in his 20s? 30s? and he’s playing a wiry, teenager, always on the move. It’s a one person show. McKenzie wears a black tank top, camouflage pants and leather shoes sneakers? Trainers? that are dark gold and I wanted them they are so cool. He flits all over the stage as Buddy. He has a sweet, innocent openness which is disarming. Think about it…he wants the girl to go with him to the party so that people won’t call him reprehensible names about his skin colour or sexual orientation.

He has a secret place where he keeps his mementos. He is easily wounded, almost never vindictive. And ultimately stands up to his tormentors because he can tell his parents that something is wrong…and his parents are intuitive enough to know it too.

Always part of these school shows is a talkback with the actor. These are as telling as the play. McKenzie is direct, forthright and hard hitting. He asked, “How many of you chose to be straight?” No hands go up. “Well why would you think I chose to be gay?” A girl in the audience blurted out, “You’re gay!!” almost incredulously and with a touch of an edge. I wanted to ask her, “Does it matter? Why would it matter?”

In that talk-back after WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? I get the sense that Berend McKenzie is driven to save lives. To try and prevent another kid from going through what he went through as a kid.

It’s an important, sobering look at a serious problem for many young people and needs to be seen. And to be cheeky, some of the scenes in the play will make you see red.


6) Which leads us nicely into the last play… RED. Give us the background on this one.


Part of the Canadian Stage season. Written by John Logan who won a Tony Award for the play. He also wrote the screenplay for such films as GLADIATOR and AVIATOR.

RED it’s about Mark Rothko, the celebrated American modern artist, known for his huge paintings usually of one colour with some variation.

It’s 1958, in New York. He has just received a commission. He will paint several panels, in red we learn, to be installed in the new Seagram’s Building for their restaurant called The Four Seasons. He believes those paintings will change the lives of the people who will see them as they chow done on over-priced food. We have to smile at his naivety and hubris. He got $35,000 for the commission. Unheard of in that day.

Rothko hires an assistant named Ken, to help with the stretching of the canvases, priming them, and to do various jobs he needs done—buy booze and food for example. Rothko expounds to Ken on art, life, colour, the dilemma of being true to one’s art in a commercial world and other philosophical thought.

For example, he believes his paintings are living, breathing and sensitive. He treats the paintings better than he treats people. Rothko rages about everything else. He has no interest in Ken at all except as a sounding board for his rants and theories.

Ken is an artist too—timid about showing Rothko his work—but Rothko seems so disinterested in him. He never refers to Ken by name. Rothko’s answer to that when Ken challenges him, is that he doesn’t have to be interested. He’s an employee. We realize Rothko is an intensely unhappy man who has contempt for most things except for artists of the past. There is precious little evidence that he even lives in the outside world.


7) Do you get a sense of the man in the play?


I think to some extent, but as I said, there is so little evidence he lives in the outside world. Does he have a family? Is he married? Does he know what’s going on politically at the time? None of that is in the play.

His philosophical outpouring seems like so much pretension. You stick with him because he seems so deluded about how his paintings will affect the viewer and certainly in that restaurant. But truth to tell, when John Logan did see the paintings and not in the restaurant, he was so moved by them, he wrote a play.


8) And the production..does it bring the play to life?


It’s directed by Kim Collier who has directed plays in the past that have a very specific, definite visual impact. STUDIES IN MOTION last year with Canadian Stage—NO EXIT before that. Text seemed secondary to her visual production. So I was intrigued to see what she would do with a play that is so dense in philosophy and rage.

The production is as huge as one of Rothko’s paintings.The production is as muscular as Rothko, tearing into priming his canvases. We are in Rothko’s studio. Paintings hang everywhere. As Rothko, Jim Mezon paces, tears around the space. He is one of this country’s best, most powerful actors,and he lends that power to Rothko. It almost seems like Mezon is at level 10 of fury. I would have liked a bit more variation.

I must confess that I shouldn’t have to worry that the actor will have a heart-attach with all the bellowing—not the character, but the actor. And echoing the apprentice to the master, as Ken, David Coomber is a young actor, leaning at the feet of the master—Jim Mezon.

As Ken, Coomber is quietly respectful, trying hard to keep up and eventually giving back the argument in as powerful a voice as Rothko. And only at the end do we see a kind of meeting of the minds—that Rothko has noticed Ken.

I think Collier’s production does justice to the play but she gets carried away with the techno stuff. We really don’t need lumbering side panels (canvases) sliding out to block off the stage with scene changes, complete with projections on the panels to distract us.

And the set is so designed that perhaps part of the audience on one side doesn’t see something on the other. When Ken exits for the last time, he leaves one of his paintings propped up on a crate. I wonder if people on the other side of the stage saw it properly, because I didn’t see it clearly.

It’s a play and production I think people should see for themselves. The play is intriguing and the production does justice to it.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

HALLAJ plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until Dec. 4.

WOULD YOU SAY THE NAME OF THIS PLAY? Plays at Young People’s Theatre until Dec. 3.

RED plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until Dec. 17.

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