House of Many Tongues – Tarragon Theatre

By Olya Ryabets

House of Many Tongues at Tarragon, written by Jonathan Garfinkel and directed by Richard Rose, is probably one of the biggest theatrical surprises I’ve had in a long while.

Given the subject matter (Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and the director (Rose is the guy who brought us ‘Scorched’), I fully expected a drawn-out family saga, ripe with preachy sentimentalism aimed to mollify our white liberal guilt. What I got instead, though, is a pleasing (if naïve) evening of magical realism and laughs.

The play is a story about a house shared between an Israeli and a Palestinian, as well as their unruly teenage children.  As such, it touches on not only political, but also family issues. It runs for two hours, with intermission, and they go by in a blink.

I found that the show warmed up slowly, opening on a somewhat melodramatic note, but by the middle of the first act the cast had the audience by the balls. I thoroughly enjoyed the acting in this play.

Fiona Highet is irresistible as the House, Raoul Bhaneja is dead-on as the ironic Camel and Hrant Alianak is hilarious as Abu Dalo, the Palestinian who has claims to the house.

Daniel Karasik and Erin MacKinnon do an excellent job at capturing teenage awkwardness. Niki Landau is sharp as Rivka, Daniel’s tutor. Howard Jerome seemed to do a fine job on Shimon, Daniel’s Jewish father, but the writing for the character seemed a bit flat compared to the witty monologues and repartees of the others. 

This I add to my list of elements that made the show a little uneven – the simple, clean set was marred by unattractive (and redundant) projections; the several well-chosen (and well-placed) songs were mixed in with melodramatic (and once again – redundant) sound cues; the writing and direction jumped from fairly polished and sharp to flat and sentimental.

Overall, the show doesn’t dig too deep – but due to the well-paced energy of the cast, toilet humor gets the laughs, and sob stories of dead mothers get our sympathies. . The play strikes a precarious balance – one more sad note and the entire thing would be simply too mushy, one more joke about cunulingus and it would become insensitive.

As it is, the play did not change my life, but I sure had a good time.

House of Many Tongues runs until Jun 3, 2009 at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgeman Ave)
– Showtimes are Tues – Sat 8pm, Saturday and Sunday 2:30pm
– Ticket prices range from $20 – $38, with rush tickets available Friday nights for $10
– Advance tickets are available online, or from the box office at (416) 531-1827