by Lynn on March 22, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r Anousha Alamian and Mirian Katrib
Photo: Claus Anderson




I saw two emotionally charged productions of two harrowing plays over the weekend.

I will be reviewing: A Thousand Splendid Suns based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini and adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, playing at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. until March 31, and The Monument by Colleen Wagner, playing at the Factory Theatre, in Toronto until April 1, 2018.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

At the Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London, Ont.

Based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini

Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma

Directed by Haysam Kadri

Based on the original staging by Carey Perloff

Set by Ken MacDonald

Costumes by Linda Cho

Lighting by Robert Wierzel

Composed by David Coulter

Sound by Jake Rodriquez

Cast: Anousha Alamian

Shelly Antony

Deena Aziz

Hayden Baertsoen

Natascha Girgis

Tarick Glancy

Jessica Grossi

Mirian Katrib

Omar Alex Khan

Gerry Mendicino

Baraka Rahmani


Ursula Rani Sarma has beautifully adapted Khaled Hosseini’s powerful novel for the stage in a production that grips you from beginning to end.

The Story. Laila and her parents are quickly preparing to leave their home in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan to the ‘safety’ of Peshawar, Pakistan. Unfortunately, before they can leave, Laila’s parents are killed and she is badly injured in an air raid. Laila is carried to safely by Rasheed, a neighbour. Laila is tended by Mariam, Rasheed’s wife. As Laila slowly heals it’s clear that Rasheed has designs on the young woman (Leila is fifteen) and wants her to be his second wife. Mariam will still live in the house but Laila is preferred. Rasheed wants a son. Mariam has had several miscarriages. Rasheed is sure Laila will give him a son. When she gives birth to a daughter Rasheed is enraged with both wives. Mariam says that Rasheed was not always angry. He was sweet in the early years of their marriage. We never see that side of him.

A Thousand Splendid Suns follows the journey of Laila and Mariam as they try and survive the wrath of Rasheed, the economic devastation of Kabul that affects them all, and the restrictive dictates of the Taliban towards women. In a sense it is a play about all women in Afghanistan.

The Production.  Ken MacDonald’s set is stunning. The deep red/orange landscape in the backdrop says everything about the heat and parched sand of Afghanistan. The sun/moon in the sky is a coiled sphere of wire. It looks forbidding. Burning symbolism. Set pieces are spare: a door well suggests a dwelling; a table with chairs and a sideboard is a kitchen; a bed with a flimsy curtain as a door is a bedroom. Robert Wierzel’s lighting creates the hot sun of the country. I’m almost looking for my sun-glasses. Linda Cho’s costumes are loose-fitting pants and shirts for the men and traditional garb for the women until they have to wear a burqa to go outside.

Carey Perloff directed the original co-production when it originally played at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and at Theatre Calgary. The production at the Grand Theatre is directed by Haysam Kadri who is basing his direction on Perloff’s original staging. Interestingly Kadri played Rasheed in the original production.

The direction and staging has sweep, a grandness to it. There is a fluidity to the flow of the staging but moments that need to be realized, implications for women, the impossible situation women are in, are not passed over. Ursula Rani Sarma has illuminated the restrictive world of women in Afghanistan and Kadri’s staging (after Perloff) gives life to it.

We watch Mirian Katrib as Laila develop from a young fifteen year old to a smart, resourceful, caring woman. Laila endures the grief of the loss of her parents, the concern when marriage to Rasheed is foisted on her and the thousand other oppressions she endures as she becomes a wife, a mother and a woman in Afghanistan. Through it all Laila finds a soulmate and surrogate mother in Mariam. Mirian Katrib plays Laila with grace and conviction.

As Mariam, Deena Aziz is mesmerizing. Truly. She has a quiet dignity. She is watchful. You know she knows she is being shunted aside by her husband and while it’s tempting to shun Laila Mariam doesn’t. The loving bond between the two women, the resourcefulness they must find to survive is beautifully realized in these two fine performances.

Anousha Alamian plays Rasheed. It’s such a hard part because he seems relentlessly angry. He is a man demanding what he perceives as his rights regarding his wives. He wants a son and initially has a daughter. He looses his job when the Taliban arrive. He takes his fury out on his wives and daughter. He saves his love for the son Laila eventually has. Alamian gives a strong, fiery  performance.

The production is unflinching in telling this harrowing story.

 Comment.  Khaled Hosseini is the chronicler of life in Afghanistan with “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” These are huge stories that need to be told. The Kite Runner was poorly adapted for the stage and given a laboured production in London, in the West End. A Thousand Splendid Suns fares much better in Ursula Rani Sarma’s bracing, gripping adaptation and Haysam Kadri’s sensitive and clear direction.

Hearing every new restriction for women in Afghanistan is like hearing a lash being struck: can’t go to school, can’t hold a job, can’t go out of the house without wearing a burqa accompanied by a male family member, can’t wear bright coloured clothes or nail polish. And on and on.

What is happening in Afghanistan to women might seem so foreign to us in Canada. The brutality, no matter how stylized in mime it is on stage, is chilling. One wants to look away. It’s to the credit of this splendid production that we can’t and don’t.

Presented by the Grand Theatre.

Opened: March 16, 2018.

Closes: March 31, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.


l-r Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter
Photo: Joseph Michael

The Monument

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Colleen Wagner

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set by Elahe Marjovi

Costumes by Samantha McCue

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composed and sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Augusto Bitter

Tamara Podemski

Devastating as good theatre is.

The Story. Stetko is a soldier who has raped and killed 23 women and buried them in the woods. He is Mejra’s prisoner. She tells him that she is his savior. All he has to do is do what she says for the rest of his life, otherwise he will be killed by the state. He agrees to her terms.

Over the course of the play Mejra will treat him roughly, feed him, tend his wounds, and break down his arrogance and condescension so that he remembers where he buried the woman. One of them was Mejra’s daughter.

Note: When The Monument was first produced in 1995 it could have taken place in any war torn country. There are references in the dialogue that could be applicable to Bosnia, Rwanda, Serbia etc. For this production director Jani Lauzon wanted an application to Canada and the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Playwright Colleen Wagner revised the play changing dialogue and expanding the last scene to reflect that. Stunning.

The Production.

Elahe Marjovi’s set is dark. It seems to be in an open but isolated space. There is a chair at the top of a raised structure. Around it is dirt. One assumes the woods/forest is up at the back, in darkness. Ropes hang down from the flies perhaps representing trees.

At the top of the show, Louise Guinand’s cone of light pours down on Stetko (Augusto Bitter) who sits in the chair, his legs spread with his arms tied around the back. Darkness is around him.

Augusto Bitter as Stetko talks with arrogance and bluster about the women he raped and later killed. He did these crimes as a soldier.  He talks of how he would love to ‘do it’ with his girlfriend but they can’t find a place to do it. He says with disdain that some soldiers did it in the barracks with other soldiers watching. Stetko wouldn’t/couldn’t do that. He speaks longingly of his girlfriend and nonchalantly of the women he raped and killed.

The lights gradually go up as he speaks revealing Mejra (Tamara Podemski) up, stage left. She is in a t-shirt ‘battle’ pants, boots. When she approaches Stetko she is forceful, angry, forbidding, and dangerous. Tamara Podemski as Mejra is fearless around Stetko regardless if he is tied up or not. Augusto Bitter as Stetko has the arrogance of a man who doesn’t care what happens to him anymore. He was ready to die. He knew what he did. Initially he doesn’t care. It’s war. This happens. Mejra keeps badgering him to tell where the women are buried and he can’t remember. At each request to do something he says he can’t and with fierce insistence, Stetko’s resistance is broken down. It’s a battle of wits and wills, Mejra vs Stetko, and Mejra prevails.

Stetko finally finds the spot of a mass grave and digs up the bodies. When Mejra orders him to take them out of the grave, director Jani Lauzon has an image that is symbolic of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls—a red dress on a hanger.  Stetko carefully pulls these dresses out from a spot behind the mound on top of where his chair is. Each dress is draped over his arms as if he is carefully carrying a dead woman. There is such sensitivity and delicacy in these moments and they are breathtaking, literally. Stetko carefully lays each dress on the ground, some are hung from trees. His full memory comes back. He tells the truth about who each woman was.

Jani Lauzon directs this with an uncompromising focus. The staging has both characters so close, the taut emotions realized the results are compelling. Both Mejra and Stetko are walking wounded looking for some kind of redemption. In the end is there reconciliation? Is there forgiveness? The play and the production pose these important questions. Food for thought long after the production ends.

It’s a production that is both powerful and poetic. Timeless and timely. And stunning.

Comment. Colleen Wagner has written such a gut-wrenching, poetic, beautiful play. It  is applicable to so many instances in the world over the last 23 years,  but none more applicable than to Canada and the shameful treatment of the stories of  the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Produced by Factory Theatre

Opened: March 15, 2018.

Closes: April 1, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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