Review: Unholy (Nightwood Theatre)

“Theatrically powerful” Unholy plays on stage in Toronto

In Unholy, produced by Nightwood Theatre and playing at Buddies In Bad Times, a Youtube broadcasted debate pits four women with differing relationships to Abrahamic religions against each other to discuss the controversial matter of misogyny in religion. Though their backgrounds are diverse, all are passionate, displaying intellectual prowess contextualised by flashbacks to experiences of loss and grief. 

On one side of the panel sits Yehudit (Niki Landau), who is a rabba — the form of rabbi that Orthodox Judaism allows for women — beside Maryam (Bahareh Yaraghi), who is a lawyer and advocate for a feminist Islam. They are to argue that religion is not inherently misogynist.

On the other side sits Margaret (Barbara Gordon), a nun who was excommunicated after authorizing an abortion of a dying fetus that would save the mother’s life, beside Liz (Diane Flacks) an ardent Jewish lesbian atheist. They are to argue that misogyny is deeply embedded into religious doctrine.

This melee is intended to be shepherded by moderator Richard (Blair Williams), but he mostly stays out of the picture except for a few comic turns. He doesn’t provide the only comedy in the piece though. With the actors’ commitment to the characters, and Kelly Thornton’s thoughtful direction, each one has a story that is both hilarious and heart-breaking. From Yehudit’s drunken ramblings of betrayal on her sister’s wedding night, to Margaret’s interactions with a street-involved youth who regrets that her mother hadn’t aborted her, these women have earned whatever belief or disbelief they have.

But the dynamic relationship on the stage is between Liz and Maryam. Liz has suffered a great loss that Maryam knows all about. Maryam wants Liz, and is conflicted about her desire. She’s aware that her sexuality is fluid but fears that if it were publicly known it pose a barrier to reaching the demographic of the Muslim community she intends to lead into progressive feminism. Liz’s cynicism is tempered by her yearning to be touched after too many years alone. The attraction between the two was so palpable, and their scenes so beautifully staged, that the very air of the theatre felt erotically charged.

The two sides of the debate are obviously unbalanced, as Margaret is not an atheist, or even an agnostic: only Liz can expound on the fictionality of God. This is explained in the narrative by the exposure of Richard’s faith, but is also true to life as I have known it as an atheist. We are always outnumbered, or lumped in with xenophobes and racists like Dawkins. In a nuanced way, the script approaches this dark side of atheism in that Liz has some notions on the niqab that are problematic. Maryam skilfully addresses this perspective, keeping the dialogue as intelligent as the romantic tension is taut.

In any form of storytelling, endings can be difficult. Flacks, who is also the playwright, has managed an ending that to me, at least, was perfect. It was at once open-ended and a satisfactory conclusion, as well as being theatrically powerful.

There is no way to touch this topic without bias. For the past few years I have been trying to overcome my prejudice against religion that was ingrained by my experiences as a queer youth. This show is an important offering into the conversation about the relationship between religion (Abrahamic ones, at least) and those marginalized by their gender and/or sexuality.

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Photo of Barbara Gordon, Bahareh Yaraghi, Niki Landau, Blair Williams and Diane Flacks by John Lauener