English at the Segal
garners standing applause

OBIE-winning play presents a heartfelt and humorous look at what gets lost in translation

By Byron Toben

March 29, 2023

As the sold-out audience at the press opening of English at the Segal Centre applauded standing up at the finale, the display above the actors flashed the slogan Women, Life, Freedom.
This phrase has become a rallying call for justice and change in Iran following the murder of Masha Amini by the Revolutionary Guard in 2022 for wearing her hijab too loosely. This serious entreaty did not detract from the humour in the play.

Written by Iranian-American Sanaz Toosi, it depicts the difficulties of learning English by four Farsi speaking Iranians in 2009. It won the 2020 OBIE award in New York as Best New Play but its Canadian premiere was delayed by the pandemic until now in this joint production with Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, co-directed by Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia.

In the play English, Ms. Toosi deftly uses the classroom as a cover for underlying motives and agendas simmering ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The teacher, Marjan (Shazal Patou) is a married Iranian lady who has spent twelve years in Manchester, U. K. The sole male student, Omid (Sepehr Reybod) seems to have a basic knowledge of English which he is trying to improve. The youngest and most nimble of the students is Goli (Aylin Oyan Salahshoor) who likes the sound of English but has a problem with her accent as she is influenced by the singing in English of her favourite pop star, Spanish-accented Columbian Shakira.

English play

Elham (Ghazal Azarbad) however, dislikes the English language but needs it to qualify for medical studies in Australia and doubts whether Marjan has the skill to qualify her. Roya (Banafsheh Taherian), the oldest student, has a son in Canada who will sponsor her to join him and her grandson only if she has learned English.

Some of the teaching exercises involve a variant of dodge ball, where the students throw a large ball at each other, requiring the catcher to enunciate an English word upon receiving. I did not note any of those words as I was intently watching to see if any dropped the ball. Not as suspenseful as Cirque de Soleil trapeze acrobats possibly falling, but none did. Another prop for other words – Omid brought a toy red fire truck to class to aid in visualizing the difficulty in accenting the “wh” sound in water or wheels. Goli, despairing of her progress, declared she felt like an id-iot (or should it be “Aye-diot”?)

A budding flirtation between Omid and Marjan added some sensual tension but went nowhere.

English play

Throughout the play, I kept having flash backs to the 1937 book by Leo Rosten, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, wherein a teacher in New York city is teaching English to a mixed crew of recent immigrants, including-Yiddish speaking Mr. Kaplan, who always had a twist to proffer. In discussing a newspaper, Mr Kaplan keeps referring to “He says” to which the teacher interrupts “I have told you many times, newspapers are neither masculine nor feminine, but neutral – should be “it says”.” To which Mr. Kaplan responds “is so, but not MY newspaper” and adds triumphantly “is HAROLD Tribune!” Word play and language differences are always a source of chuckles or even belly laughs.

In the play English, Ms. Toosi deftly uses the classroom as a cover for underlying motives and agendas simmering ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

English continues at the Segal Centre until April 2.

Images: Dahlia Katz

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Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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