Thursday, April 11, 2024

Theatre: Language Lab


English by Sanaz Toossi, Directed by Naghmeh Samini, a co-production with Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble, Arts West, through 28 April.

Another journey to the Junction in West Seattle, and with it yet ANOTHER change is how they handle parking there. Same parking lot, yet every time we're out there, there is a new vendor and/or new process. This one is run by the lot owner themselves, and while we had to work through the menus to park, there was a guy in a hoodie (lot attendant, I hope) walking around and scanning people's plates. 

So there's that. But also, we had dinner at our favorite sushi place in the neighborhood, Mashiko. We've been going there for some time, such that the kitchen knows us (and that we always order a salmon tartar that's no longer on the menu). Great food, and settles us well for the theater.

Oh, the play? Excellent. English is takes place within a classroom in Tehran, teaching for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) with a goal of allowing the students to travel abroad. Instructor Marjan (Vahista Vafadari) demands that they are "English Only", but her students slip into their native Farsi easily out of humor and frustration. The students are a mixed bag - Omid (Emon Elboudware) is the teacher's pet, speaking English well. Goli (Newsha Farahani) is the youngest and most eager to learn. Roya (Janet Hayatshahi) is a grandmother who wants to learn English so she can go to Canada and speak with her granddaughter. And Elham (Shereen Khatibloo) is the class rebel - she's failed the final test five times already and hates English and everything connected with it.

And the conceit is that when the cast speaks English, they do so in accented English, but when speaking their native Farsi, the speak in unaccented English. In Farsi, their words and mannerisms are colloquial and natural, while in English is stilted, halting, and unsure. Even the subject matter in English shows a marked difference from reality (Really, how many conversations have you had where you ask "What is your favorite color?") And yeah, I got a bit of High School PTSD from trying to learn French (I tried to  hit it head-on, looking at it as a problem to be solved logically, and as a result bounced right off it).

Ultimately, another language is a mask of another culture, and embracing it often challenges one's own inherent presentation and identity. Watching the class struggle with the language, with each other, and with their own desires provides a rich tapestry of choice and thought. Each has to answer the question - why are you doing this? Is it worth it?

The actors are amazing and deep in capturing the dual nature forced on their characters. The stage is a backdrop of school chairs cascading from the ceiling, underscoring the internal chaos within the classroom. The scrim behind them is the blackboard, which echoes Marjan's instructions. Both do a lot to support the actors and their interactions.

This won a Pulitzer. Yeah, I can see that. 

More later,