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'Behind the Moon' by Anosh Irani

Now onstage at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre

Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann. L-R: Husein Makhavji, Ali Kazmi, Vik Sahay

Dave Rabjohn

Searing tension is the hallmark of Anosh Irani’s ‘Behind the Moon’ opening as a world premiere at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre (extra space.) The theme of immigration (loss, hunger, fear) is almost a genre unto itself. But Irani’s play moves it to another level with three characters each of whom has tragedy burning just under the surface. The force of this production comes from the three compelling performances of Ali Kazmi, Husein Madhavji, and Vik Sahay.

In a stark, but neat, Mughlai restaurant in Toronto we meet Ayub (Kazmi) furiously polishing the counter and glass of the serving area. An agitated stranger named Jalal (Madhavji) enters, just after closing time, begging for some food. Ayub refuses, clearly worried about the integrity of the restaurant’s hours. Jalal wears him down and leaves with butter chicken.

Their rapport is intriguing with Mr. Kazmi’s sparkling sarcasm and Mr. Madhavji’s dark intensity. Throughout the play, Jalal continues to visit Ayub at awkward moments trying to forge a friendship that is rejected (for the most part.) Jalal offers wisdom and encouragement, but it rarely pierces the mysterious gloom surrounding Ayub.

Qadir (played by Vik Sahay) is the caustic owner of the establishment. His positive outward appearance is belied by a scheming undercurrent – he is the well-known “smiling damned villain” and Sahay’s smooth performance is punctuated with traces of ugliness and betrayal. He seems to treat his employee well, but the audience is disturbed by brief and subtle moments of subjugation – one example is a gift that quickly sours.

The three characters meet and Ayub is in the difficult position of trying to act humane, while Qadir views it as disrespectful and impudence. Events swarm towards a crescendo as bully and victim physically brawl – the moment of crisis is a Kafka-like metamorphosis that ends violently.

As mentioned, each character carries horrifying tragedy. Kazmi’s performance is brilliant in its rage and despair as he misses his family back in India and as we slowly learn that he is a victim of borderline human trafficking. Madhavji’s sweating performance is equally profound as we learn of his recent harrowing loss and subsequent guilt. Sahay’s smooth arrogance is abhorrent – a Freudian slip causes him to suggest he is both the owner of the restaurant and the owner of Ayub.

The veteran Richard Rose returns to Tarragon to direct Irani’s sublime script. His direction was subtle, but his work was surely demanding conducting these three charging performances.

Jason Hand’s lighting direction added extraordinary intensity. As the play works through a series of scenes, the blackouts were sharp and distinct and the brownouts supported the suspense. Harsh fluorescent lighting exposes all without compromise.

Irani’s writing includes three striking soliloquies from each character. Migration is negatively portrayed as its cost is prohibitive. The jaded Qadir suggests that “to get something you have to lose something.” In ‘Behind the Moon’ the cost is too high.

‘Behind the Moon’ by Anosh Irani
Performers: Ali Kazmi, Husein Madhavji, Vik Sahay
Director: Richard Rose
Set and Costume design: Michelle Tracey
Lighting design: Jason Hand
Performances run through: March 19, 2023.

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