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'The Wrong Bashir' by Zahida Rahemtulla

Now onstage in the Guloien Theatre at Crow's Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue.

Now onstage in the Guloien Theatre at Crow's Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue.

Joe Szekeres

Photo credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Sugith Varughese as Sultan and Bren Eastcott as Nafisa.

“Thankfully, director Paolo Santalucia does not allow the nine-actor cast to become stock characters in playwright Zahida Rahemtulla’s sitcom-like script.”

According to the Crow’s Theatre website, ‘The Wrong Bashir,’ a farce, is Zahida Rahemtulla's first play about the Ladha family within Toronto’s Ismaili community (commonly known as followers of the Aga Khan). ' The play premiered in Vancouver to a sold-out run and critical acclaim in spring 2023 with Touchstone Theatre.

Knowing this, the play would seem ideal for a Toronto premiere. A farce is always welcome, especially in our world, which sometimes needs laughter. Indeed, raucous laughter sometimes rang throughout the Guloien Theatre within this opening night audience.

I smiled for a few moments and felt the odd chuckle here and there.

But raucous?

Hmmm…

I didn’t experience that at all.

Bashir Ladha (Sharjil Rasool) is a bohemian philosophy podcaster hosting his show ‘The Smiling Nihilist.’ He is just about to graduate from university. He is thrust into the spotlight when chosen to assume a distinguished religious position that his parents, Sultan (Sugith Varughese) and Najima (Nimet Kanji), have eagerly accepted on his behalf. Before Bashir can object, two committee representatives, Al Nashir (Vijay Mehta) and Mansour (Parm Soor), are at his door to congratulate him. As the representatives suspect a mistake has been made, Bashir’s jubilant grandparents Dadabapa (Salim Rahemtulla) and Dadima (Zaittun Esmail), Gulzar (Pamela Mala Sinha) and sister Nafisa (Bren Eastcott) commemorate the honour.

There is a sneaking suspicion that the wrong Bashir may have been selected for this honour within the prayer community.

Theatregoers already know humour can be a powerful tool for addressing societal issues in theatre. There are prime moments where Zahida Rahemtulla’s script does just that, most notably when reps Al Nasjhir and Mansour realize their error about selecting the wrong Bashir. As Mansour, Parm Soor’s wide-eyed response when he realizes his part in the mistake is funny. Moreover, ‘Bashir’ also touches on the universal theme of intergenerational conflicts within families. The play also raises thought-provoking questions about the role of culture and religion in shaping family and community dynamics, making it relevant and engaging for audiences of all backgrounds.

The Crow’s Theatre website states a charming farce ensues in ‘Bashir.’

Another hmmm…

I don’t see it as a farce.

Instead, this opening night performance became more broad situational comedy-type humour and not a farce.

Yes, the dramatic technique of mistaken identities has been utilized in the theatre (most notably in Shakespeare) for comic effect. It’s nothing new. It’s up to the script to make this technique appear fresh and novel.

Zahida Rahemtulla’s script didn’t do that for me. Why? She has written the ‘right’ Bashir to be caught in a situation in his family from which he believes he cannot escape. This appears to be the focus of the piece, which is more sitcom and not the ludicrously improbable situation that is a farce.

Some farcical moments are worth noting, such as Parm Soor’s hunched Mansour and Vijay Mehta’s conversation in the kitchen when they realize they may have picked the wrong Bashir for this religious honour within the community. Sugith Varughese and Nimet Kanji’s comic banter back and forth as husband and wife contains terrific moments of farce as the two have their timing down pat.

Ken Mackenzie’s set design of a split-level kitchen and sunken living room with a doorway entrance is an accomplishment and feast for the eyes resplendent with Lisa Nighswander’s props. Ming Wong’s costume selection finely delineates the differences between the nine characters. What did make me utter a low laugh was the reference to Sultan’s Costco pants. Mackenzie's lighting design focuses attention where it is needed.

The strength of this opening night performance is learning more about the Ismaili community that I didn’t know. Thankfully, Director Paolo Santalucia wisely does not allow the nine-actor cast to become stock characters. Santalucia keeps the pacing moving briskly along to enable the audience never to forget the characters become real, ordinary people who reveal their genuine emotions with conviction. One moment occurs between Sultan and Bashir when the father finally opens his son’s eyes.

Sharjil Rassol’s Bashir becomes that apt, cocksure, and full-of-himself young adult who thinks he knows it all when he doesn’t know Jack. Bren Eastcott is the wisecracking Nafisa, Bashir’s younger sister. Salim Rahemtulla and Zaittun Esmail are adorable as Bashir’s paternal grandparents Dadabapa and Dadima. There is a heartfelt moment in the second act between Dadabapa and Bashir.

And Another Thought: From this opening night audience reaction, it was apparent people were out for a good time and to have a good laugh.

Yes, ‘The Wrong Bashir’ does that, and I’m pleased the audience around me sincerely enjoyed it.

I found this opening night performance more akin to the situational comedy of the '60s “Lucy Show” episode in which the beloved redhead is mistaken for a LOU C CARMICHAEL and drafted into the army.

Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.

‘The Wrong Bashir’ runs to June 9 in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. Call the Box Office at (647) 341-7390 or visit crowstheatre.com for tickets.

Crow’s Theatre presents ‘The Wrong Bashir’ by Zahida Rahemtulla
Directed by Paolo Santalucia
Assistant Director: Zahida Rahemtulla
Set and Lighting Design: Ken Mackenzie
Costume Design: Ming Wong
Sound Design: Jacob Lin
Head of Props: Lisa Nighswander
Head of Wardrobe: Ellie Koffman
Stage Manager: Neha Ross
Assistant Stage Manager: Victoria Wang

Performers: Sharjil Rasool, Bren Eastcott, Sugith Varughese, Nimet Kanji, Vijay Mehta, Pamela Mala Sinha, Salim Rahemtulla, Zaittun Esmail, Parm Soor.

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