Theater Review: A Political Refugee’s Tale — “Bashir Lazhar”

Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company is now giving Bashir Lazhar, ably translated by playwright Morwyn Brebner, its American premiere, and I admire the theater’s choice.

Bashir Lazhar by Évelyne de la Chenelière. Translated by Morwyn Brebner. Directed by Shakina Nayfack. Staged by the Barrington Stage Company. At the St. Germain Stage through June 8.

By Helen Epstein

Juri Henley-Cohn as the title character in the BSC production of “Bashir Lazhar.”

Dramatist and actor Évelyne de la Chenelière’s Bashir Lazhar began its theatrical life in Montreal, as a one-character play in 2002. It was subsequently made into a 2011 Canadian French-language film Monsieur Lazar and nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards.

Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage is now giving the play, ably translated by playwright Morwyn Brebner, its American premiere, and I admire the theater’s choice. Barrington Stage does a good job of seeking out and presenting new work by non-mainstream playwrights and giving them excellent, if somewhat conventional, productions. Their offerings feature a wide variety of protagonists—last summer they included a one-woman show based on the voluble radio sex-therapist Dr. Ruth.

Bashir Lazhar is another political refugee whose life lends itself to dramatization, a French-Algerian café owner who seeks asylum in Canada during the Algerian civil war of the mid-1990s. He bogarts his way into a job as substitute teacher at an elementary school in Montreal after reading that a teacher on staff has staged a showy suicide (hanging herself in her sixth-grade classroom) and inflicts a dictée from Balzac on his pupils.

The film provides a comprehensive view of a Montreal’s public school and educational policies; its multicultural population of schoolchildren; Bashir’s Canadian colleagues; and a sustained account of the political refugee teacher’s interaction with a variety of students, especially a little girl named Alice.

The theater version does far less of that. Instead we gain a closer look at varieties of post-traumatic stress through what’s going on in Bashir’s heart and mind; Juri Henley-Cohn plays the substitute teacher with conviction and a convincing French-Algerian accent, offering up a lonely, personable, and believable Other. His Bashir is alternately awkward and graceful as he struggles to live on the edge of desperation. Henley-Cohn’s portrait of the old-fashioned
and traumatized Bashir is nuanced and never less than interesting. It’s grounded in the personal and evokes the predicament of immigrants and asylum seekers all over the world.

Playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière.

The script is a 20-page monologue in which Lazhar takes the audience, his pupils along with his sixth-graders, into his mind. He talks to himself, his classroom, his principal, his colleagues, an immigration judge, and his family back in Algeria.

The playwright offers the director a free hand with the staging, and Shakina Nayfack has chosen the most obvious: a set that replicates a public school classroom—oak teacher’s desk, long blackboard, radiator, fire extinguisher, Canadian flag in the corner. These props are often reconfigured by the actor himself as each short dramatic episode is furnished with a literal physical context. That gives the production an unnecessarily choppy quality, and I found myself wondering about less prosaic, more evocative options.

Anthony Mattana’s sound design is similarly obvious and unsubtle. A loud Muzak-like soundtrack of western pop music is playing when the audience enters the theater and segues into vaguely Middle Eastern vocal music whenever Bashir remembers Algeria.

Unimaginative directorial choices aside, I was very glad to see the work of actor/playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière and curious about her other writings. I plan to follow the trajectory of actor Juri Henley-Cohn, whose agile performance here promises a long and interesting career.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life. Her article about a perpetrator memoir recently appeared on the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog.

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