by Lynn on March 30, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Bahram Beyzaie
Translated by Soheil Parsa, Peter Farbridge
Directed by Soheil Parsa
Scenographer, Trevor Schwellnus
Sound and Composer, Thomas Ryder Payne
Costumes by Teresa Przybylski
Cast: Sean Baek
Steven Bush
Colin Doyle
Carlos González-Vio
Ron Kennell
Jani Lauzon
Bahareh Yaraghi

A powerful, poetic indictment of the brutality of power over the powerless during times of war. It’s set in the middle of the seventh century CE but it could easily be today.

The Story. The Death of the King is based on an historical event in Persian history, in the middle of the seventh century CE. Celebrated Iranian playwright, Bahram Beyzaie has fashioned a story pitting the powerful against the powerless and centres it on a poor Miller and King Yazdgerd III, the reigning monarch during the time of an invasion by a religiously impassioned Arab nation.

The King is found dead in a flour mill by his soldiers and the Miller is charged with his murder. The Miller, his wife (called The Woman in the program) and their daughter (called The Girl) plead with the Commander of the soldiers that they did not kill him. The King in fact had been running away from both his troops and the enemy and hid in various villages and finally came to the remote and poor village where the Miller lived with his family.

The story involves the Miller telling what happened and having his wife corroborate it; having the Commander and his soldiers even questioning whether the dead man is the King or not. It seems that no one has actually seen him close up, his face is either hidden by his mask or the people are too afraid to look him in the face. Playwright Bahram Bayzaie is masterful in establishing the doubt here. His logic makes such sense.

The Production. Scenographer Trevor Schwellnus has designed a spare, stark set. The playing area is a raised circular platform. Downstage of it is the corpse of what is thought to be the King. He is laid out with a red mask over his face, a red cloak covers him from the neck down and his crown, in red light, is on his chest.

Teresa Przybylski’s costumes for the Miller, his wife and daughter are sturdy but roomy peasant pants and tops. The soldiers are in black form-fitting gear. A priest is in a long white robe.

There’s a heightened poetic sensibility to Bahram Beyzaie’s text and the translation by Soheil Parsa and Peter Farbridge, an almost formality. But the production is far from static. In fact it’s pulsing with emotion, energy and commitment thanks to the sensitive yet muscular direction by Soheil Parsa. A soldier stamps his foot on the raised platform to establish authority and power over the frightened Miller and his family. Once again Parsa goes for the heart of a play and makes it throb with life and relevance. His cast is superb.

The Miller is caught in a situation with the Commander on one side and his family on the other that leaves him confused, frightened and initially uncertain. But then he rallies and his wily intelligence kicks in. As the Miller, Ron Kennell realizes all these variations in a man whose life is turned upside down when the King appears and makes a terrible request of him. Beyzaie has a wonderful line describing the lives of the Miller and his family—that it’s grinding misery under the millstone—terrific image. Kennell’s performance realizes all that.

As The Woman, the Miller’s wife, Jani Lauzon uses rage to express her fears about the situation. She rages at her husband, at the Commander, occasionally at her daughter. This is a family in an extraordinary situation and that too comes through in these emotional, gut-twisting situations. The Girl is their daughter and Bahareh Yaraghi plays her as a young woman aware of the danger she and her family are in, but with a certain control. She sizes up the situation. She is watchful. But she is also fearful. The brute force of what this family is up against is focused in The Commander who is played by the imposing Carlos Gonsález-Vio. Gonsález-Vio is not a marauding bully. He is an aristocrat who happens to be a soldier. He has stature, a certain finesse and there is no denying he is also frightening.

It’s the last scene that really shows the horror of this endless war, when the opposing army attacks. All we hear is the sound of the approaching forces yelling. The mindless sounds of the horrors of war. The reaction of the characters results in a chilling finish to a gripping production.

Comment. Once again director Soheil Parsa brings us a play from his Persian roots and illuminates its relevance to us. Parsa’s director’s notes put in context this story of the death of the king. The enemy is described as “a fearless and religiously impassioned Arab nation.” The invasion ended an empire and religion that existed for a thousand years. It was replaced with Islam. The relevance to today is sobering.

Presented in a co-production by Modern Times Stage Company and The Theatre Centre.

Opened: March 29, 2016.
Closes: April 10, 2016.
Cast: 5 men, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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