2009 Edmonton Fringe Reviews: Day 6

I didn't mention it when I reviewed Never Trust a Naked Marriage Counsellor, but at one point Norah the evil psychologist makes reference to the industry buzzphrase that you have done nothing wrong yourself but are "a subcomponent of a dysfunctional system". The line is repeated relatively often throughout the latter half of the play, and is generally acknowledged to be the utter bullshit that it is. In Bashir Lazhar, the buzzphrase actually is applicable: Michael Peng's Lazhar is in a dysfunctional system. But more on that later. Bashir Lazhar is the story of an Algerian man who fled to Canada, settled in Montreal, and wound up the substitute teacher for a Grade 6 class whose teacher died by suicide (in the classroom no less). I say this with post-viewing confidence that if you attend will not be immediately evident as the play begins. Indeed, most of your first fifteen minutes of viewing (and all of the first five) will be spent asking yourself a variety of questions with no immediately clear answer: what's the deal with the girl running around in the blue silk scarf? What's real? Why does he keep writing on the floor in chalk and do the words have particular significance? Interpretive theatre isn't for everyone, and I'll warn you that its in the cards here. Also you might want to brush up on your frog-talk: several seemingly key bits of dialogue were incomprehensible after the translator apparently decided to cash the EI cheque a hardworking Albertan provides rather than finish the task at hand. The play begins with screaming, running around, repetition, and ends with the cast members throwing paper airplanes into the audience. Somewhere in the middle comes the story. In it, we see Lazhar's political refugee application, his getting the substitute teacher job, and the impact of his wife and children being murdered the night before the underground railroad can smuggle them out. And here's where the subcomponent of a dysfunctional system comes in. Let's just say that Ezra Levant would probably like this play. I don't think Ezra was a big fringer down in Cowtown, but he would recognize elements here. In almost every avenue of his life, Lazhar is an individual bogged down against the crippling effect of bureaucracy. He doesn't meet the definition of refugee under Quebec's (separate) immigration department, and he instantly butts heads against the modern day realities of the unionized teaching profession. He dares to confront the kids on the death of their teacher (which he happens to think was selfish of her, an analysis that can't be discounted -- she did hang herself in her classroom, even having the students turn their desks in a circle to face her eventual corpse), lets the children write openly about violence in school, and complains about non-academic feel-good activities getting in the way of learning. Lazhar left Algeria to escape violent persecution, but here in modern-day Quebec he discovers its evil twin: nonviolent indifference. The provincial curriculum, the teachers union, the immigration officers are all just the masters of the dysfunctional system of government which ends up weighing down on Lazhar until, like a fringe version of Howard Roark, official complaints are the excuse by which he is brought down, forced out, and only briefly able to quickly summarize life to Alice, the one girl in his class who has a chance of succeeding if the system doesn't crush her as well. This is where the paper airplanes come in. Okay, once you get over the fact that huge amounts of this play are a bunch of interpretive dance and weird use of finger paints on an overhead projector its not a bad little number. There's certainly a lesson here in modern day treatment by left-leaning teachers lobbies even if it wasn't intended (and I'll guarantee you most Edmonton reviewers will mention Bill 44 at least eighteen or nineteen times), and the feeling of a man trapped by the arbitrary and unbendable rules of unelected twerps in positions of power is captured, but you do spend a lot of time either wishing they spoke English or wishing you spoke whatever language goes on in Jean-Louis Barrault's head.

Below, enjoy a clip from the show: