Review: Unholy (Nightwood Theatre)

Photo of Diane Flacks and Bahareh YaraghiToronto playwright Diane Flacks examines the intersection of women and religion in her play Unholy

I think most people have had that one dinner where they’re told: whatever you do, don’t mention religion. Nightwood Theatre’s Unholy playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is that dinner—except imagine that dinner is televised and there are no consequences for letting your opinions fly.

It’s exactly as intense, exciting, and hilarious as it sounds.

Atheist Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks, who is also the playwright), Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi), Rabba Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau), and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon) struggle to answer the question “should women abandon religion?”

Framed as a live debate, Unholy is much more concerned about how and why women, specifically, develop religious affiliations despite their negative experiences and the negative experiences of women around them.

Since its original production, much of the content has been updated to reflect the current political and religious climate.

Flacks knows what she has to say on the subject and why she wants to say it. Case in point, when her character states, unequivocally, that the Bible is a fairytale that let’s adults kill each other.

There is no hiding in Unholy—there’s bad, morally questionable, and worse. That’s what makes it so good.

With an almost gleeful contempt, Flack has the debate moderated by Richard Morris (Kevin Bundy)—a white, older man whose humour is always slightly off-colour as he tries to subtly control how the panelists interact with each other.

Bundy’s hatefully, wonderfully arrogant and tone-deaf Morris is disconcertingly on-point as a metaphor for patriarchal condescension. His humour is mean, his support unhelpful, and he exists peripherally until he deems the women need his insight.

Between snippets of an escalating showdown, we are provided snapshots of the past and present of each character, providing insight into personal decisions and their subsequent outcomes.

As a playwright, Flacks is less interested in whether religion is right or wrong but, much like her character, wants to pick at the hypocrisies women sell themselves as they struggle with their personal beliefs. Feldman-Grant is an atheist who might or might not have a point as she brutally take down the women around her, but its her obsession to win that becomes her own moral failing—her own capitulation to patriarchal learnings.

Yaraghi’s Hashemi is the obvious foil, firm in her faith and comfortable with her ability to navigate the muddy waters of that belief. She is not a character to be trifled with, almost painfully level-headed…until she decides she wants to fight dirty.

Yaraghi is particular expressive. The moment she makes the decision to personally attack Feldman-Grant, it is written across her face. Not a word needs to be spoken.

Unholy is one hundred percent an ensemble show. Flacks and Yaraghi’s chemistry is fantastic; their back and forth hypnotic as they flirt, debate, and slowly reveal themselves over the course of the show.

Landau’s Kalb and Gordon’s Donaghue have separate stories that echo each time they say their respective pieces.

Kalb is easily the least likeable of the characters on paper but Landau sells her understated charm. She’s not the best person even as she makes valid points about trying to change traditional, restrictive, and misogynistic practices. It’s just that she’s so much smaller than the so-called progress she tries to present.

By far my favourite character, however, was Gordon’s Donaghue. Outside the fact that Gordon created an endearing, slightly passive character who got some of the biggest laughs of the night, she was also the embodiment of issues very much on the Canadian consciousness in regards to Catholic practices and their impact on the lives of Canadian and Indigenous women.

If I sound like I am being vague when I describe these characters, I’m not. Part of Unholy’s power comes from the nature of the debate between these figures. I know why Donaghue resonated for me, but I suspect someone else might be struck by Kalb’s philosophy or Hashemi’s passion. You can’t really talk about the characters without experiencing how their debates play out.

And that’s really where you get caught—or I got caught up. We feel like we all have our answers about women and religion but we don’t. Flacks’ writing makes it very clear that all we have is our ability to assign reason to that choice.

Somehow that’s so much more disturbing.

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Photo of Diane Flacks and Bahareh Yaraghi by John Lauener