Bashir Lahzar from Pi Theatre: Show Preview and Interview with Richard Wolfe
Everyone has something in their lives that they need to overcome; be it the peer pressure that inspires high school specials, or the current financial pressure that inspires fear-inducing headlines. Most of us, however, did not need to flee our home and native land in order to save our lives and the lives of our families. Well, for Bashir Lazhar, the title character in Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play (translated by Morwyn Brebner), that’s exactly what he has to deal with. The story picks up after Bashir has moved to Montreal and started work as a substitute teacher in order to help the rest of his family escape to Canada from Algeria. Oh, and it’s a comedy. “It’s humorous. Did I mention it was funny? People will laugh,” mentions Richard Wolfe, director of Bashir Lazhar and Artistic Director of Pi Theatre, with a laugh of his own.
While the story touches on themes like pain, violence, and grief, Wolfe assures, “that’s all in the background, [in the play] we see a courageous guy moving forward with his life… It focuses on his strengths.” In fact, the story takes place in the grade six classroom where Lazhar is a substitute teacher, and the focus is on his attempt to prepare his students for life outside the classroom. Which means that instead of car chases, gunfights, and battles, we get “a good story, well told.”
One thing that, for Wolfe, is a real draw to this play is the fact that “Bashir Lazhar is the only person that speaks. He speaks to a number of different characters and he hears the responses, but we don’t. That’s the magic of the one-person show. It’s what stage can do really well and really gives a different experience.” Of course, having the proverbial “good story, well told” is a wonderful thing, but it requires talented actors, and finding an actor who can pull off a one-person show is a challenge: “not everyone can stand on stage for 70 minutes and not stop talking and captivate an audience.” Enter David Marr. A regular in Bard on the Beach, and myriad Vancouver stages, “David is such a good actor that, you know, you just kind of sit back in amazement.”
With Bashir Lazhar being the first play directed by Wolfe since becoming Pi’s Artistic Director, it was important to make a good first impression and choose a play that was unique and interesting for all the right reasons. One of those reasons was to draw attention to the situations that face refugees and immigrants, “especially in a country like Canada with a huge population of foreign-born residents. It’s one of the countries strengths.” Although in the play, Lazhar has specifically come to Canada from Algeria, Wolfe considers the story to be universal as the need to escape violence is, unfortunately, everywhere. “He could have come from any country and into any city with a cosmopolitan population… you get oppression in a lot of different countries… and when people want to get away from that, what do you do?”
If you’d like a little peek into the Director’s brain, here’s a Q&A session with Richard Wolfe:
AL: The play is about a substitute teacher who is thrown into a new situation where he doesn’t quite know what to do. When have you felt like you had no idea what you were doing?
RW: I actually taught ESL for a while. And the first time in the classroom was a bit weird. I didn’t know what to expect. So you kind of just dive in and see how it goes.
AL: Another theme of the play is courage in the face of violence. When have you demonstrated pure cowardice?
RW: I’m a coward every time I get on an airplane. I sit in the bar having a coffee looking at the airplanes making sure there’s not oil leaks coming out of the engine. When there are oil leaks I try to convince myself they’re supposed to be there… I fly quite a bit, and it never fails to freak me out. It’s just weird.
AL: Why should I see this play?
RW: Because you will come away a slightly changed person. And if you stayed in your house you would probably be the exact same person as you were the night before. Probably.
AL: What’s your favorite line from the play?
RW: Bashir: “How much do you love me, Alice.” Alice: “As big as the universe.” Bashir: “As big as the universe? No more?” Alice: “Yes as big as the universe, but bigger.”
Bashir Lazhar is playing at Performance Works Theatre on Granville Island from March 5 – March 21. For tickets, you may click on the image below: