Review: The Wanderers (Cahoots Theatre Company)

Photo of Kawa Ada and Dalal Badr in The Wanderers photo by Dahlia Katz

Rich performances breathe depth into The Wanderers at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

The Wanderers, presented by Cahoots Theatre Company, is one of those pieces that is so filled with richness that it’s hard to write about because there’s just so dammed much to say.

Kawa Ada has produced a script layered with light and darkness that travels between Afghanistan and Canada, real and imagined, lore and legitimacy. And director Nina Lee Aquino has worked beautifully to bring both extremes to life.

Lee Aquino has created something magical with the help of an evocative and multifunctional set design by Camilla Koo and sometimes ethereal lighting by Michelle Ramsay. These were juxtaposed beautifully by careful, realistic costuming from Ming Wong, and Michelle Bensimon’s skillfully created sound design provides an unobtrusive ambiance. This is a production filled with incredible talent from all directions.

Perhaps taking its lead from most of the actors, the set itself plays multiple roles: the ruins of a replica of a throne in a park in Kabul; a pizza place in Toronto; a Laundromat in Scarborough; and a house in Sudbury.

All the actors in the piece brought strong performances to the show. I was impressed by Dalal Badr in her roles as Mariam and as Alice, and Melanie Janzen had my teeth on edge in her role as Marie–which I think was the point. Omar Alex Khan was great as Joseph and as the Old Aman. But the person who really stole the show for me was Kawa Ada: his Young Aman was great, but his Roshan was fantastic.

It might be easy to brush this off, say that he wrote the piece and he has already said it’s partially autobiographical, so isn’t he just playing himself? But actually, I believe that makes it harder. I think the fact that he did so well speaks volumes about him as an actor, Aquino as a director, and about Ric Knowles as a Dramaturge¹.

Now, with all this glowing praise you’d think I basically thought it was a perfect show, right? Here’s the thing: up until intermission, I possibly damn near did. I LOVED it. My show partner, MoT’s own Managing Editor, Wayne Leung, also loved it. We talked about how it felt like a modern fable, how the story was so compelling, how we were drawn right in, how the effect of the sand floating in the mist was magical. We had nothing but praise.

Then we went back after intermission. And this is where the piece lost us. This isn’t to say that it suddenly became some theatre mishap, not at all. It just, I’m not sure how to describe it, deflated? The feeling of the show changed. We were disappointed.

I am hesitant to write this because it is really not descriptive enough, but it’s also what I’ve been telling people in conversations, so I feel like it’s really at the core of it for me. It started feeling like it was trying too hard to be “artsy”. It no longer felt grounded. Perhaps it’s because it deals with some afterlife issues, but that shouldn’t matter: it should still find a way to be grounded.

Perhaps most damning of all is that I kind of feel like that second part, the part after intermission – technically parts four and five according to the program – did not feel necessary to the piece for me.

There were moments after the intermission that were necessary, but the second part was not necessary as a whole. Wayne and I agreed that a quick dash across the stage by a character felt important, but her long return later did not. That quick dash conveyed all the information we really felt we needed.

Again, I didn’t think that second part was bad per se. I just didn’t feel like it fit, like it didn’t meet the expectations set by the very excellent first part of the piece.

So, please don’t let the fact that I didn’t love the second part dissuade you from seeing the show. Theatre, as with all art, it is fueled by personal preference. Perhaps the second part will be your favourite part. But, even if you have the same feelings as Wayne and I, it’s well worth seeing. After all, how many shows can boast a near-perfect before intermission?

Personally, I can’t wait to see it again, in another incarnation, once the playwright has had some time to sit with it and feel out the pieces that are most important to him. It’s amazing what one can learn from finally getting something up in front of an audience.


  • The Wanderers is playing until March 23, 2014 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with an additional 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
  • Ticket prices range from $31 – $37 (or $26 – $31 for Arts Workers and people under 30), with rush tickets available from $20 and Sunday PWYC tickets available at the door
  • Tickets are available from the box office, by phone 416-975-8555 (a $3 convenience fee is added to purchases made by phone) or online.

Photo of  Kawa Ada and Dala Badr by Dahlia Katz

¹We don’t talk about dramaturges much in reviews, because frankly, it’s not something that someone who’s looking to find out whether or not to go to a show cares much about. That said, in the case of a quasi-autobiographical piece where the author is playing the role of ‘sort of him or herself’, I think it’s pretty important. For those wondering what a dramaturge does, in the case of the development of a new play, my take on it is this: it can be kind of like a combination of an editor and a writing coach. You ask a lot of questions, and you put forward a number of challenges. This ‘definition’ probably will be disputed in the comments, and I welcome that. There are a multitude of definitions, but that is the best high-level quickie one I can come up with right now.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Wanderers (Cahoots Theatre Company)”

  1. *Editors Note: This comment contains extensive spoilers for Kawa Ada’s The Wanderers.*

    Megan, Hi. It was good to read your attempt to come to terms with Kawa Ada’s The Wanderers. I’m not being condescending, believe me. It’s a challenging and complex script and I am still trying to come to terms with it and the ways in which it brings together the apparently real and mythological.

    But I hope you revisit it, and in THIS wonderful production, because I think the second half is where the first half is heading and arrives: at a very troubled but ultimately frank encounter between father and son, but only after one of them (Roshan) is dead. On a literal level it wasn’t clear to me whether the scene is “actually” happening to both of them or to either in his imagination. But in the theatre the imagined is always “actual.” And I think it’s a common human experience to imagine conversations with a lost relative that couldn’t happen while they were alive but are so real in the imagination now that they have passed away. I’ve certainly had (and continue to have) that experience, more than once.

    I don’t want to issue “spoilers” so I won’t go into detail about how scene 4 ends, except that it has to be experienced. Scene 5 is important because it reveals that Roshan has fulfilled his “destiny” or whatever it is to continue the lineage, along with all its inherent problems. I think your take on Marie is partly right: she does put one’s teeth on edge to some extent, and Melanie Janzen is very courageous in playing this. These are not merely “charming” characters. They are all damaged, and act that out, in some way.

    So the play ends with a “Mary” about to give birth, and we are left wondering (in our world) to what kind of potential saviour.

    Sorry that this has turned into a boring lecture. And I am still finding my way with Kawa Ada’s play. And I believe that’s what makes it so valuable. The work starts after the curtain call.

    I appreciated your discussion of what a dramaturge does. I’m no expert on that, but any discussion of this important function is valuable!


  2. Hi Harry,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    One of the my challenging thing when reviewing is trying to give the reader enough information to know whether or not they would like to see it for themselves while also keeping my theatre geekery at a minimum.

    This means being keenly aware of things like the fact that I am supposed to keep it short and sweet (this piece, for example, is on the very top end of what is allowable by our editorial standards, but sometimes I take advantage of the fact that I set those standards myself), paragraphs shouldn’t be more than three lines long, other information is available at at the click of a mouse button, avoid spoilers and so on.

    It’s also about piquing people’s interest, or, at least those who’s interest is there to be piqued.

    The effect is very different than if I were doing doing something akin to, say, script analysis ;) (Hmmm. It occurs to me that a cute winky face there means nothing to anyone but Harry, me, and anyone who is reading this who happened to also be in my Script Analysis class with Harry in 199;lkacm;sdlakfm)

    So, I guess the first thing is that I go back to the idea that theatre is subjective thing, and what resonates with one will not necessarily resonate with another. But I will also concede that I likely did not word things ideally when writing this, I’m on day three of a migraine and it was a bit like trying to separate flour from molasses getting these words out once I finally got my kids to daycare.

    So, when I said that the after intermission part didn’t feel necessary, that wasn’t entirely true. There were pieces of it that felt necessary.

    For instance, when I said “a quick dash across the stage by a character felt important, but her long return later did not. That quick dash conveyed all the information we really felt we needed.” what I was trying to say, as a spoiler-free nod those who have seen the piece already, was that in a simple moment we already knew what was to come. The audience could be trusted to know what that meant, with a quick dash across the stage, the whole saviour piece is revealed.

    And yes, father and son finally talking, finally facing each other, that is important, but the way it was done didn’t work for *me*. And that’s the key really. I only ever talk about how things affect me and my show partner has told me they have affected them.

    I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, only for myself and the people I’ve actually spoken too (or, sometimes eavesdropped on, it happens…)

    It seems unlikely that I will see the piece again in this incarnation, not because I didn’t enjoy it, since quite obviously I did, but more because, well, a five year old and a two and a half year old keep me hopin’. I don’t get out much at all these days. *grin*

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment though. I always love it when there is discourse and opinions in the comment section. I’m sure it surprises no one to find out one of my favourite things to do is talk about theatre. ;)

  3. Dear Megan: It feels weird to me to be having this discussion in public, but I do want to support your effort to create public discussion of Toronto theatre. Do keep it up!

    Look, none of us ever adequately articulates immediately what we feel about a play or novel or movie. It’s always a review in progress. The work begins after the curtain call. If the plays/ performances etc. are any good they defeat our attempts and make us circle back and reconsider. That creates a serious problem for “overnight” reviewers. And, in a different way, for people like me who need time to re-consider.

    Thanks for this discussion, Megan. And best wishes to you and your web site.


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