Friday, July 13, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Mahmoud

Mahmoud is a show that brings up an interesting question in terms of radical tonal shifts within a play, how it is marketed, and how it is introduced to the audience. But first, the most important thing to mention about the play is the fantastic and fearless performance from solo actress Tara Grammy (who wrote the play with Tom Arthur Davis). The show also features a strong script in terms of character creation. The problem arises, though, when we become so engaged in a character’s story, we notice when that story is either dropped or does not achieve a satisfying resolution. Mahmoud is an amazing performance and concept in search of an ending.

Tara Grammy creates three strong and different characters in a discussion of her Iranian heritage, what that means differently to Iranian-Canadians and Iranians who moved here; a discussion of past and present Iran, and what old habits and traditions die hard. We have the extremely flamboyant, chirpy and snippy Spanish fiancĂ© of Iranian Behnam (which, according to the character, means beautiful name). The promising gay relationship hits a snag when Behnam goes back to Iran to visit family in trouble and his fiancĂ© believes it is time for him to tell his family about the two of them.  Character #2 is Mahmoud himself, a taxi driver who moved to Canada from Iran more than 25 years ago, where he was a celebrated engineer; he is now “the engineer of my taxi.” Mahmoud’s gentle humour, his cell phone ring, his obsession with praising Iran’s accomplishments despite his secret past, and his need to feed his audience, constantly calling us “my friend,” make him interesting, and charming. He’s slightly overbearing in a very real way. All characters personally address the audience, bringing us into their world (there’s even a small amount of audience participation, but nothing too embarrassing). 

The last character is Tara herself, or should I say the last two characters, because we get the middle-school-aged version of her, obsessed with removing her “gorilla-like” body hair and dying the hair on her head blond in an attempt to win a starring role in the school play, and a boy, from her rival. Amped-up, crazy for the Backstreet Boys, and full of hyper performance and choreography, this character is winning and fun, but she disappears into the very different, current Tara, who faces difficulty in the acting world, deciding if she wants to fit into the all-purpose “ethnic” actress box (and get most of her work playing a terrorist) or not. Unfortunately, because we don’t get introduced to the concept of present-day Tara in the beginning, to understand the concept of past Tara as an establishing or run-up character, and because we don’t really get to see one change into the other, it feels a bit jarring to drop young Tara’s story. Since we like her so much, it feels like we’ve lost a character instead of continued with her. I’d love to know more about who present-Tara really is.

All characters are engaging and real; the closest to stereotype is the flamboyant Spaniard, and even he gets humanized by the end. Grammy makes specific acting choices involving “putting on” the characters as she enters the “playing space” represented by a Persian rug. You can see the commitment as she enters each character’s world, and it’s very effective. 

Mahmoud is billed as a comedy, and the audience is primed for this due to how funny and engaging the characters are throughout most of the show. We’re clearly not dealing with the classic definition of comedy here, due to the ending or lack thereof. The play contains at least two extreme tonal shifts from comedy to abject sorrow, almost horror, particularly at the end. The issue is not that comedy can’t contain thoughtfulness, sorrow, or that it has to be funny all the time. In fact, the show’s poignant aspects, such as Mahmoud’s eventual acceptance that he will no longer be an engineer, are its great strength, and absolutely belong in a thoughtful comedy. The trouble is that there is a resolution this all seems to be building to, in terms of the characters affecting each others’ lives, but it doesn’t happen and instead the play ends abruptly in a disturbing way.  The main foreshadowing to this is a confusing interlude in the middle, which is also suddenly disturbing. It’s a gut punch to the audience, and if you prepare the audience for comedy and then deliver this punch, it needs to have both specific intention and a satisfying payoff, even if it’s not the one the audience was expecting. Returning the focus to Mahmoud and his important realization/decisions would lead to a greater sense of narrative resolution, or finding out where Tara’s character goes from here.

Narrative dissonance aside, this piece is smart and funny and asks some great questions, and the performance is really something that should be seen. The exciting thing about Fringe is that one can always find somewhere to grow, if the fundamentals are so sound; I can see Mahmoud being developed into a full-length show, where it could answer more of those fascinating questions it brings up.


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