Bashir Lazhar by Évelyne de la Chenelière, translated by Morwyn Brebner. Directed by Shakina Nayfack.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Death doesn’t have a consolation prize."
For a moment, let’s discuss the standing ovation. What is it for? What prompts it? What does it mean any longer? Seeing a new play, "Bashir Lazhar" by Évelyne de la Chenelière, translated by Morwyn Brebner and starring Juri Henley-Cohn at the St. German Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, part of the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts last night prompts the questions above.
Undoubtedly the play is a dynamic, one-man mono-drama. Is that so unusual? No. Worthy of a visible ovation? We’ll let that one rest for a moment. Half of the audience rose to its feet at the end but there were no calls of "bravo" so why did the audience rise? The play only ran 76 minutes, so it wasn’t an urgent need to leave the building or get to a restroom. But still people rose to their feet applauding. How does one read this reaction?
In this instance, it seems to me, it was approval for the actor playing the title role. Often that is the case. A solo performance lasting over an hour is a skill of memorization that applause makes whole. The standing ovation becomes a sign of approval for the job well done. The fact that it wasn’t a universal gesture indicates that many people had questions about the play and the reasonable reasons for putting it on in the first place and, for some, a questioning of the quality of the performance as well. Did it not illuminate the ideas in the play to a certainty? Were some folks confused about the meaning of the play, its content, the relevance of it to our day-to-day lives?
I certainly was. The author is a good writer. She isn’t Ibsen or Shaw or O’Neill, though. A few thoroughly vague references obfuscate the story being told. The internal dynamo of the main character is often halted to play out meeker moments, concepts of inner restraint that don’t help to focus the man. This production is the American Premiere of the play, written in French in French Canada and translated into English by a Canadian playwright of Welsh descent. We think of the Canadians as a gentler people than our own and perhaps that essence of equanimity in our neighbor to the north makes it difficult to really get down and dirty and disclose the harshest of realities, something this play is dealing with. . .it seems.
Understand, I liked what I saw and what I heard, but I don’t think I heard and saw quite enough. Little in this play is narrative of another time for Bashir. It is an up-front, forward moving, plot-driven piece about a substitute teacher who cannot be to his students what he wants to be, and that’s a topic we’ve come across before in the theater and television and films. In this case he is replacing a teacher who has died. We’re not given that up front, no. We come to it later, gradually, through constant chatter about her.
This substitute is hiding his own traumas and tragedies but on the face of Juri Henley-Cohn we can see the internal struggle going on inside this man. When he breaks, and he does break, it is dramatic and even a bit melodramatic, but it is long overdue and we’re glad he has his melt-down. The life of a substitute is a hard one, it seems. And not just because no one has thought to give him a student list, a curriculum or any hint of what he’s coming into upon his hiring.
The subject here, in this play, is violence and how it affects its witnesses. Children. Kids and their comprehension of uncommon violence and traumatic stress and mother-love and the emotions that surround all of this. Has the playwright, and has her translator, given all of this the weight it needs to succeed is the real question. I think she has not. I think something is wrong with this play. I feel that the emotional commotion stirred up by the two principal teachers in the play - the one on stage and the one missing - haven’t been allowed to hit their targets. Instead the play presents an off-stage impact that we can only guess at from what is on the written page that is being translated here by an excellent actor and a talented director.
A 2012 film of this 2008 play was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars. The film is fleshed out with a script by its director based on the play, but it does not simply follow the play as written. It uses other people to show the depths of the soul of Bashir Lazhar which is something that cannot happen in a one-person play no matter how talented the actor may be.
Henley-Cohn has a wonderful face: expressive and brooding and emotionally present. His hands and his body move with a grace that makes his character so very appealing. His voice and his use of it are right for the play as written. He has the lines and the movement down and there is a frantic aspect of the changes he must show as the play moves through its own time and its flashbacks also. The actor here is so very capable of doing it all, even creating dialogues for Bashir and others and making them so well defined that there is not one moment of confusion as to who is talking, who is listening.
Even so, the play doesn’t give enough of the darker side of Bashir’s emotions and so the actor can only take it just so far. It is a triumph for Henley-Cohn that everything becomes so very clear, but it is to his detriment that the play doesn’t allow him to take Bashir far enough.
What the director here has done is to give the play a physical scope in a single set. Shakina Nayfack uses his actor and his set pieces to create a disharmony over and over in a multitude of ways. In essence he is trying to overcome the shortcomings of the script. That he does so well with this is to the director’s credit. That he can’t really take it all the way home is only a problem of the script and not of the production.
Praise goes to Robert Brown, the lighting designer, for using realistic and symbolic imagery with his lights to keep us aware of what we’re seeing and why and when. It is wonderful theatrical work. Brett J. Banakis has provided a sturdy and workable set and a costume that seems to be introducing us to Bashir time and again. He in his costume reminded me of my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Gutchin, whose one suit represented his life at that time. Original music by Anthony Mattana was Philip Glass-like in its repetitions but did serve transitional moments well in the play.
I am not always a fan of the one-person play and this is one of those where I can admire the work and still wish for a real play with real people playing real characters. I can appreciate the half-house standing ovation for the work of the actor and applaud the rest of the audience for understanding that over-used cliches, like the standing ovation, are to be shunned when the total sum of the evening’s work is less than brilliant but only very good. The standing ovation demands cheers and bravos and not just applause for one job well done.
Bashir Lazhar plays through June 8 on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to www.barringtonstageco.org.