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PARIFAM: Come Back for Act 2

by | Apr 6, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

A better play is trying to emerge here, but you’ll only know that if you stick around for Act 2.

In Canadian-Iranian playwright Aki Yaghoubi’s debut script Parifam, the eponymous central character is an architect who’s building Iranian museums in major cities around the world. Her latest is in Montreal, where Parifam is set. Parifam is also an undiscovered painter, whose work impresses the heck out of the other characters. Without a hint of irony or humility, Parifam says her latest painting might be a work of genius. To me, this all feels like the playwright’s naïve fantasy of artistic grandeur. More charitably, you might argue that Yaghoubi is aspiring to a level of resonance that she feels requires “noble” characters, but noble doesn’t necessarily mean rich or accomplished.

Still, thematically, Yaghoubi is hunting big game. Parifam has been sexually traumatized, and, as we soon understand, that trauma is inhibiting her work as a painter.

But I’m making the storytelling sound more coherent than it is when experienced in the theatre. In Act 1, Parifam flips back and forth between her own reality and that of her mother who gave birth to her, then died, in prison in Iran. There’s a lot of fancy dancing about a documentary that Parifam’s childhood friend Ramak is trying to make about Parifam — while Parifam is simultaneously videotaping her own artistic process. She is in an unusual marriage with her father’s best friend, Casra. And she has an adult son Kian, whom she treats with relentless coldness. Because Parifam is a monument of self-absorption, I found it hard to find an emotional entry point to her story, even though I understand its basic parameters. And the storytelling is repetitive as well as scattered: again and again, Parifam raises her brush to work on a painting only to be interrupted by visions of a frightening man who stops her in her tracks.

The intention here is clear and I certainly don’t mean to dismiss the impact of sexual trauma. The point I’m trying to make is that, in the theatre, we need to be rewarded with narrative development and thematic accumulation. We need the playwright to make it worth our while to stay with the story as it passes through time. For me, that did not happen in Act 1 of Parifam. Time grew heavy and so did my eyelids.

It’s always tricky to review the work of emerging artists — in this case a female emerging artist from a politically traumatized community. I’m aware I’m commenting as an old white guy. All of that acknowledged, I hope to be helpful with my frankness because Yaghoubi needed more help on this project than she gleaned from her work with dramaturg Diane Roberts. Act 1 of Parifam feels like it’s trying to experiment with form, but it doesn’t have enough of a handle on the principles of storytelling to start messing with them.

Fortunately, a more focused story starts to emerge in Act 1 and it reaps greater emotional and thematic rewards in Act 2. This improvement begins — the narrative finds its focus — when Parifam’s son Kian starts to press Parifam about what’s troubling her. In Act 2, the details of the underlying story emerge and so does the relationship of Parifam’s friend Ramak to that story. This specificity helps a lot and allows for more concrete resonance.

There are still problems. It wasn’t clear to me how Parifam suddenly found the strength to change the course of her life. And, when it came, the resolution felt too pat. Still, Act 2 is a lot better than Act 1.

Donia Kash’s performance as Kian, the son, is persuasively emotionally grounded and responsive. Foojan Nixie Shabrang is impressively consistent as the emotionally defended Parifam: she obviously has a clear idea of who the character is. And Nazanin Shoja’s performace as Ramak, the childhood friend, grows in stature as the play expands and gives her more room.

Director Panthea Vatandoost has obviously taken care with her actors. The pace she sets is slack, but one could argue that’s a match for the wandering script.

My strong sense is that Vancouver’s theatre community needs to invest more thoroughly in script development. We need more skilled dramaturgs and more artists and organizations willing to pay serious attention to the dramaturgical process.*

PARIFAM by Aki Yaghoubi. Directed by Panthea Vatandoost. On Friday, April 5. Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Medusa Theatre. Presented by The Cultch. Running at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre  as part of the Femme Festival until April 14. Tickets and information

*In an earlier version of this review, I placed too much responsibility on dramaturg Diane Roberts. I apologize for that. I don’t know what went down during this script’s development.

PHOTO CREDIT: (Photo of Donia Kash and Foojan Nixie Shabrang by Paulina Vega Carrillo)


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.