Review: Hallaj (Modern Times Stage Company)


I watched Hallaj, a story that transcends time and religion, at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a couple of nights ago. Hallaj is the story of a man who was brave enough to stand up for his beliefs – no matter what the consequences.

The story follows Hallaj’s quest for God, while defying the limits of religion and embracing spirituality, which is at the heart of the Sufi movement. Sufism is best described as the mystical branch of Islam that focuses on turning one’s attention inward in the search for God. Sufi music is captivating and beautiful and has a trance-like quality to it.

Mansur al-Hallaj was a Sufi mystic and poet who lived in Baghdad around the year 243 AD (as per the show). The show follows his true story of being hunted for refusing to take back a statement he made in a state of divine communion.

Hallaj believed that we should love and seek God, for his own sake; to be one with him and not because we fear hell or hope for heaven. When we do something simply for a favourable outcome it makes the action materialistic and takes away the joy that comes from loving God without expecting anything in return.

The actors are all amazing and each one commands your attention when they are on stage. Hallaj, played by the playwright Peter Farbridge, brings such passion to the character that we get lost in his world. Jamil, his wife, is played by Beatriz Pizano who is simply spectacular. As an audience member I could tell she really felt every emotion she portrayed and I was close enough to the stage to see the real tears in her eyes. Sharif, played by Carlos González-Vio, with his booming voice stole every scene he was in. The rest of the cast was stellar as well but I have to skip over some names.

The most captivating part of this show, other than the actors, is the lighting. I loved the way it’s used to create rooms and give a sense of captivity. The set is simple, barren actually. The ground is covered with mulch. There are no other props, only a wall in the background that acts as a backdrop for some pretty cool effects.

This is a physical piece of theatre with a lot of movement which adds to the overall feel of the show. There is dancing, fight scenes and a lot of gyrating trance-like states that keep the piece moving. The show weaves in and out of the past and present. The flashbacks are done so well that neither my friend nor I were ever confused about what was going on. This is not easy to do but they managed to keep the story straight.

My show partner for the evening, who can be a tough critic, really enjoyed the show as well and said she loved the lighting and the sound. She also thought the story had a certain viewpoint that felt very fresh and relevant and was executed flawlessly.

This is one of those hidden gem shows that you will be surprised to discover. I encourage everyone to see this while it’s here. Keep an open mind and let Hallaj take you a journey. It tells the story of religious censorship and the lack of self-expression in formal organized religion through the story of an Islamic man who is shunned for his beliefs. This show will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

Details

Hallaj is playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St) till December 4, 2011.
-Shows run from Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm; Saturday at 2:30pm.
-Tickets range from PWYC to $35.
-Tickets are available by calling 416 975 8555 or at www.buddiesinbadtimes.com

Photo credit to John Lauener. Cast in photo: Beatriz Pizano, Stewart Arnott, Carlos González-Vio, Steven Bush, Bahareh Yaraghi.