This style is so hard to pull off. But this creative team is mostly doing it very well — sometimes astonishingly so.
Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir is a farce. An Ismaili farce.
In the story, a nominating committee selects Bashir Ladha, a philosophy student who can’t decide what to do with his life, to become the next student Mukhisahib, or spiritual leader of the Ismaili population at his university. Bashir’s parents are thrilled; Bashir, who produces a podcast called The Happy Nihilist and can’t remember the last time he attended a religious service, has zero interest in the role — and nobody can figure out how he got nominated in the first place. But, when two members of the nominating committee show up at his mom and dad’s house (where Bashir is living) along with several members of his ecstatic extended family, Bashir gets cornered: he doesn’t want the gig, but he doesn’t want to hurt his folks either.
The big problem with Act 1 is that we know where it’s going. It’s in the title: this Bashir is the wrong Bashir. The nomination was meant for somebody else with the same name, so the “big revelation” at the end of the first act is … not a big revelation.
But there’s still a lot to appreciate. Playwright Rahemtulla knows how to spin farcical absurdities. Bashir’s technical innovation, for instance, is to convert all his podcast’s digital files to tape and play them on a boombox in coffee shops: he’s innovating backwards. Rahemtulla’s use of language is propulsively rhythmic and studded with one-liners: delighted to have her son back home, Bashir’s mom Najma exclaims, “We love it when you run out of money!” And there’s all sorts of satire of the Ismaili community: Al-Nashir Manji, the prissier member of the nominating duo, proudly declares that the Ismaili community is the Canadian group that boasts the largest number of committees.
The biggest success of The Wrong Bashir, though — both in terms of the writing and this production — comes in the form of eccentric characterizations. Playing Najma, the mom, Neha Devi Singh nails the style. In the vein of characters from old TV farces like I Love Lucy, Singh’s Najma is excitable, well meaning, and perpetually baffled. While hinting at cartoonishness, this Najma stays touchingly grounded in the human.
Seth Ranaweera manages a similar trick as Bashir’s dad Sultan.
The evening’s other extraordinary performance comes from Hussein Janmohamed as Manji the religious bureaucrat. Janmohamed’s work is, appropriately, broader than Singh’s and Ranaweera’s: as the play’s antagonist, Manji is the embodiment of a whole lot of cultural absurdity — and the object of its richest satire. Skilfully shaping the character’s arc, Janmohamed makes Manji a deliciously exasperated martinet.
Director Daniela Atiencia has cast with precision and, with her troupe of ten players, crafted an evening of remarkable stylistic consistency. I particularly enjoyed how lovingly she is working the play’s comic rhythms.
Lighting designer Jonathan Kim has helped Atiencia to clarify interactions that threaten to slide into chaos. Kimira Reddy’s set is handsome and functional.
Importantly, Act 2 acquires both emotional and thematic weight. Because it gets stuck in the questions of how Bashir got nominated and whether he will accept the nomination, Act 1 becomes repetitive and its stakes feel low. Then, in Act 2, Bashir’s grandfather, Dawood, who has dementia, goes missing: all of a sudden, the process of Bashir losing his connection to his family and culture becomes meaningfully embodied. There are real emotional stakes and, as Bashir starts to wonder if he should accept the nomination after all, the thematic exploration deepens.
It’s great to see a show about immigrant identity that doesn’t fall into familiar assimilationist tropes. And it’s great to see a stage crowded with actors, most of whom I’ve never encountered before, doing so well with such a devilishly tricky form of comedy.
THE WRONG BASHIR by Zahida Rahemtulla. Directed by Daniela Atiencia. A Touchstone Theatre production in association with the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. On Friday, February 24. At the Firehall Arts Centre until March 12. Tickets
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