Review: the hooves belonged to the deer

by Lynn on April 13, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Plays until April 23, 2023.

Written by Makram Ayache

Directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Set and costumes by Anahita Dehbonehie

Lighting by Whittyn Jason

Sound by Chris Pereira

Cast: Makram Ayache

Noor Hamdl

Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

Eric Wigston

Bahareh Yaraghi

A dense, complex story of queer shame and the tyranny of Christianity to ‘cure’ homosexuality in a 15-year-old Muslim boy. The writing is poetic and the production is artistic, but more attention is called for in fleshing out the writing of missing parts of the actual story.

The Story. Playwright Makram Ayache has written an autobiographical play that echoes his own life, to a point.

Izzy is a 15-year-old Muslim boy living in a small prairie town, trying to fit in. He finds a kindred spirit in Will a fellow high school student and member of the same Christian Youth group. Izzy is welcomed by Pastor Isaac and encouraged to become a Youth Leader because of his embracing of the weekly meetings. The fact that Pastor Isaac has provided X-boxes, movie nights and pool tables certain would be a lure for young people to join the Youth Group. Izzy is conflicted because of his deep feelings for Will. He might be envious that Will’s mother accepts his homosexuality. Izzy feels he must hide his gayness from everybody. When Izzy gives in to his feelings for Will Pastor Isaac stumbles on seeing both teens having sex. Izzy is horrified as is Pastor Isaac. What follows is Pastor Isaac preaching to Izzy in the hopes of ‘curing’ him of his homosexuality. Pastor Isaac feels he is given a second chance at this kind of conversion with Izzy. Pastor Isaac shunned his own son Jake when Jake revealed that he was gay. Since then Jake has been living on the streets of Vancouver immersed in the drug culture of the city.

There is a parallel story as well. Aadam and Hawa (Adam and Eve) live in the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Knowledge is the center of that world. As long as they don’t eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge they believe they are safe from the outside world. They live in ‘fear’ of the ‘white-skinned’ people of the north. But Aadam is curious and ventures out to the desert and finds a white-skinned man, unconscious. Aadam saves him and brings him to the garden but doesn’t tell Hawa. The man’s name is Steve. Aadam is attracted. Steve is as well.  Is Steve “the Snake” of the Bible, offering temptation to Aadam in a different way than have a taste of this apple?

The Production and Comment. The wondrous Anahita Dehbonehie has designed a walled set that has a bench configured all around the three walls of the set. The cast often sit there watching until it’s time to do their scene. Other times characters walk on the benches in slow motion (provocative bit of business that was also used to great effect in Medea in London in the West End in February). There is a deer’s head hung up on the stage left wall. The floor is covered in a maroon ‘sand.’ A ladder leads up from the sand to an illuminated opening in the ceiling. Is this space underground and the ladder leads one up to freedom? No. As is indicated by one of the characters, the ladder is the sacred Tree of Knowledge leading to enlightenment, if only one could partake of its forbidden fruit. There is a trough of water at the lip of the stage running the whole width of it. All these elements factor symbolically in director Peter Hinton-Davis’ vivid, powerful direction.

Anahita Dehbonehie also designed the costumes. They are contemporary and casual for the modern scenes and evocative of biblical times for Aadam (Noor Hamdi) who is dressed in black with a closefitting head cap, and Hawa (Bahareh Yaraghi) who is dressed in these scenes in a long dress and a white head covering that flows down her back.

Whittyn Jason’s evocative lighting is beautiful, eerie, and conjures a world that is mysterious and artful. The head of the deer on the wall is illuminated to emphasize its symbolism (there is an on-line study guide that explains the symbolism of various animals in various religions). Often characters in still profile are also illuminated as if in a painting.  

Is there anything more at odds than the emotions and conflicted feelings of a young man trying to find his place in the world? Then add that the young man is 15 years old, Muslim and gay living in a small town. Such is the world of Izzy (Makram Ayache), bursting with contradictions and conflict, certainly because he is so attracted to his friend Will (Eric Wigston). Izzy seeks a kind of acceptance from Pastor Isaac (Ryan Hollyman) who welcomes him into his bible-study-youth-group and grooms him to become a youth leader in the church.

As Izzy, Makram Ayache brings a quiet urgency to the role. He is embracing of Pastor Isaacs’ equally quiet insistence that the Christian Church is the best way for Izzy’s salvation. Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac is so layered and detailed in his portrayal. Here is a man as conflicted as Izzy. He has been in torment because he shunned his own son, Jake (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) because he was gay, and wishes Jake would come home. Pastor Isaac is determined to convert Izzy to being a member of the Christian Church. And with Pastor Isaac’s almost polite relationship with his wife Rebecca (Bahareh Yaraghi) one senses that perhaps Pastor Isaac is himself, gay. Ryan Hollyman as Pastor Isaac gives such an impassioned performance, but one that is delicate, tempered and carefully modulated, that you are attracted to this committed, but perhaps dangerous character.

The young male characters of the play provide sensuality and the heat of sexual desire. Noor Hamdi plays Aadam as a reticent man with Hawa, but one charged with erotic curiosity about Steve (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski). Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski plays Steve with supreme confidence about his attraction to anyone he meets. And Steve never met an opportunity he could resist in taking his shirt off, thus showing why he has confidence. Shepherd-Gawinski also plays Jake, Pastor Isaacs’ lost, addicted son who wants to come home and for his father to accept him. Eric Wigston is Will, Izzy’s friend through high school and beyond. Will is comfortable with his homosexuality because he has been embraced without conditions by his mother. Eric Wigston imbues Will with confidence and a sense of being settled that Izzy can only envy.

Bahareh Yaraghi plays the only women: Hawa, the first woman, fierce and prescient and Rebecca, Pastor Isaac’s patient, loving, confused wife. Bahareh Yaraghi plays these women with truth, passion and a gripping clarity.

Makram Ayache’s writing is vivid, poetic, erotic, sensual, dense, complex with intellectual thought and describes a difficult time in Makram Ayache’s life, to a point. Director Peter Hinton-Davis’ spins his magic and creates a production that is so artful and full of symbolism one might be dazzled into ignoring the fact that the play needs serious attention to balance, to fill in the holes of the story, clarify the intention and strengthen the play.  

Izzy is Muslim (a follower of Islam), but Pastor Isaacs seems to treat that as an irrelevance, an afterthought, as if he doesn’t have a clue about another major religion. What does being a Muslim mean to Izzy and his family? We are told precious little. We are told precious little about his family at all. Why is Izzy so anxious to embrace Christianity and the teachings of the bible and ignore his own faith? What’s missing in his life besides clarity about his sexuality? One is left wondering because Makram Ayache hasn’t told us. What is missing from the hooves belonged to the deer is any acknowledgement that homosexuality is not accepted by many religions, not just Christianity. There is a reference late in the play about how it’s considered by Izzy’s family, and only fleetingly.

Makram Ayache has written an extraordinary Playwright’s Note that is in the one page handout in place of a proper printed program. In the Note he writes that his Christian Youth Pastor: “…promised me that Christ could heal me of homosexuality. He also told me that Allah, the God of my family, was another demon taking me away from the true path. I only needed to give my life to Christ.”

He also likens Christian Evangelicalism (as a) “deep and necessary part of the greater white supremacy which contours Canadian imperialism.”

I call Makram Ayache’s Playwright’s Note “extraordinary” because these references are not in his play. And calling Christian Evangelicalism a ‘deep and necessary part of the greater white supremacy which contours Canadian imperialism” is not just a reach but a grasp (gasp?) as something not supported in his play. Perhaps focused re-writes are in order to strengthen his arguments to warrant such a Playwright’s Note?

I have a lot of admiration for much of the play and the production—Makram Ayache is a new, vivid voice–but there are my concerns as well. Still, I’m interested in seeing his next work.  

Tarragon Theatre, in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre presents:

Plays until April 23, 2023.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes approx. (1 intermission)

Available digitally from April 18.

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