Trevor Abes: Writer

Tag: theatre reviews

Review: UnTuned (Golvareh)

It’s hard to prepare for life’s highs and lows when you think too highly of yourself to expect them. You will bet on yourself, but you won’t hedge the pursuit of that dream with a surer, albeit less satisfying, option. It is the dream or nothing. 

With Sarah Saberi’s UnTuned, we find ourselves on the nothing side of things for the story of a struggling musician and immigrant to Canada on his 40th birthday as he video calls with family and friends back in Iran.

Amir Hosein Taheri, as Massoud, the musician, brings a lighter air to the angst of unfulfillment, cracking jokes, often at others’ expense, to distract himself from confronting why his art did not work out as expected. His sulking posture and indifferent face, even at the happiest of moments, kept reminding me of Camus’ The Stranger, except somehow laced with hilarity, which is no small feat.

I think Massoud succeeds at keeping us interested in his lack of creative and romantic achievements because he can’t help brushing up against it, forcing himself to react. There are constant opportunities for self-reflection, most of which he swats away, but yet, he keeps answering birthday calls in search of more. I call that spirit and he has it in droves, even though he can’t always recognize how it shines through everything he does.

At its base, this play about failure in love and work is supported by love itself, made all the more intense by the distance between Massoud and his callers, though they are side by side on the screen. That mix of relief, longing and joy you get when you Zoom the right person is the fertile soil from which this story comes to light.

One pivotal scene concerns Banafsheh Taherian, as Atefeth, Massoud’s high-achieving friend, who stood out to me as an example of artifice adding to rather than subtracting from authenticity. Atefeth is a hyperbolic extension of everything Massoud might wish for, so much so she’s almost perfect, a statistical rational anomaly in a world of people all up in their feelings barely getting by. Her jovial effortless exceptionalism teaches us how very seriously Massoud takes her as a measuring stick for his own accomplishments, though he’d never admit it, setting him (and us) up for how unexplained expectations are always guaranteed disappointments. 

Another key scene involves Farzaneh Soheili, as Bahareh, who offers us a heavy dose of badassery as, one by one, she throws Massoud’s put downs right back in his face. She pulls this off with vigor, questioning the foundations of the meaning in his life, savouring the pulls from her cigarette with a stiff upper lip as an action star might. The pair makes for a crescendo I found to be a satisfying payoff to Massoud’s broody soul-searching.

Every caller in UnTuned succeeds at reflecting Massoud back at himself at an angle he’s too stuck to tease out on his own. From his mother (Fariba Jedikar) to his sister (Faranak Kalantar) to his job interviewer (Ashley Mauerhofer), there are intimations of the great promise he can’t seem to reignite. And Saberi, as Director, does well to end things with a nod to self-care suggesting he may never be able to, and that’s OK, so long as he can have his own back once the inevitability of change comes calling.

If you’re interested in a character study that cycles you through the full scope of human emotion, you made it. You’re here.

Watch UnTuned as part of Toronto Fringe’s Digital Fringe here until August 22 at 11:59 pm ET.

Review: Cooking for Grief (Alma Matters Productions/Theatre ARTaud)

The incredible usefulness of knowing what to do with trauma when it lands in your lap is not usually part of the curriculum, in or out of school. It’s a skill often learned in the aftermath of an unfortunate event, one you aren’t familiar enough with to see a way out.

In my limited experience, I take therapy to be an admission that life is made up of the seemingly insurmountable, but you can be taught how to differentiate between the impossible and the unbelievably hard. Engaging in any kind of therapy, clinical or not, is taking a firm stance on the normality of uncertainty – of things occasionally falling outside of your control – without giving up on workable solutions toward who you want to be moving forward.

That enduring grip on who you want to become, despite the bullshit (self-inflicted or from the outside world), is what comes through the strongest for me from Breanna Maloney’s new play, Cooking for Grief.

The play centres on a group therapy session with four characters at various stages of coming to terms with who they are and how they heal. Though there are in-depth storylines covering alcoholism, physical abuse, and death, there is a sense that hardship isn’t as essential to their self-definition as it once was. These individuals are not rookies to the ordeal of picking themselves up when nobody else is around.

Anand Rajaram, as Jerome, for example, projects the even-keeled disposition of someone who had to fight years to forge it out of strings of bad decisions. The peace he exudes as the leader of the therapy session is a balm for the other people in the room. I’m calming down just thinking of him. I feel his patient insistence on nudging the rest of the group away from self-loathing and unaccountability and toward the aforementioned workable solutions is full of the love we all dream of.

Aris Tyros, as Rob, is pretty enrapturing as someone on the opposite extreme of Jerome’s, someone who reacts without thinking and tries to gather knowledge amidst the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It’s his brashness, like someone running toward the fire, that kept my attention. What makes him even more convincing, in my view, is how Rob is intelligent and eloquent about his misfortunes and addictions, such that he can make himself feel better by painting himself in a better light. He is too smart for his own good, and it is a reward to watch as Jerome, Tori and Monique reflect his bs back at him, and he deflects it back at them, until eventually someone busts a gasket and a breakthrough ensues. This happened over and over with the cast, making me forget that I was watching a cinematic staged reading as opposed to a full-fledged production.

Banafsheh Taherian, as Monique, has to me the standout moment of the play when she recalls her son’s car accident, which leads her to find relief in wine. The shame and infinite love in her voice as she relives the experience take us there, making it easy to imagine the scene in vivid detail, which amplifies her story’s impact by having us fill it in as our minds prefer. Monique devastated me with her utter heartbreak and shook me into an acute awareness of all the extra affection I could be showing the people in my life.

Maloney, as Tori, fills the role of group shit-talker with aplomb. Her self-assurance is hard-won, after considerable strife, and will knock you down to size if you’re inconsiderate, but it’s never dismissive; rather, it comes from the knowledge that overcoming trauma often requires directions you may not even know you need.

Bringing it all together, Director Sarah Marchand, Playwright Breanna Maloney and Dramaturg Merlin Simard have assembled for us an intimate, messily authentic look at the great joy and tragedy of having people who mean more to you than anything.

The show has been extended until July 3, 2021. Tickets are available here.

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