Heal­ing and hu­man­ity in a dev­as­tated class­room

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE - By Kevin Prokosh

AT first glance at the spec­tac­u­lar set of the stage drama Bashir Lazhar, it looks like a bomb has gone off in the class­room of a French­langauge school in Mon­treal.

For its Grade 6 stu­dents, their safe haven of learn­ing has been blown sky­high by the sui­cide of their beloved fe­male teacher, found hang­ing in their class­room. The de­ceased is not the ti­tle char­ac­ter but it’s her sub­sti­tute, a man who reads about the school tragedy and ap­pears unan­nounced in the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice of­fer­ing to take over the trau­ma­tized class.

That sets the scene for Eve­lyne de la Chenelière’s de­cep­tively sim­ple but deeply af­fect­ing Bashir Lazhar, The­atre Projects Man­i­toba’s sea­so­nen­der that opened Thurs­day night at the Rachel Browne The­atre. You can’t get much more sim­ple than a one­act mono­logue given an ex­cep­tional, un­der­stated per­for­mance by Van­cou­ver ac­tor David Adams, who car­ries on one-sided con­ver­sa­tions with many characters that the au­di­ence must cre­ate with their imag­i­na­tion. Adams deftly brings out the gen­er­ous spirit of this man and his es­sen­tial dig­nity.

The courtly re­place­ment teacher is from Al­ge­ria, where he says he taught for 17 years. From the out­set, the new Cana­dian strug­gles to fit in. While in the class­room, he is car­ing but firmly old-school — he makes the stu­dents line up their desks in rows and chooses The­atre Projects Man­i­toba To March 24 at Rachel Vrowne The­atre Tick­ets: $25 at 204-989-2400

½ out of five the work of some un­known named Balzac to use for dic­ta­tion. Out­side, he is con­stantly mis­un­der­stood, which raises bad feel­ings and sus­pi­cion that he is an Arab who doesn’t re­spect women.

In flash­backs to which di­rec­tor Ann Hodges brings a wel­come clar­ity, we learn Lazhar was a fa­ther of three whose life was shat­tered in Al­ge­ria and is now ap­ply­ing for po­lit­i­cal refugee sta­tus in his adopted coun­try. De­signer Joan Murphy Kakoske’s deskstrewn set­ting morphs into a re­flec­tion of Lazhar’s tur­bu­lent emo­tional state in which ev­ery­thing is in dis­ar­ray.

De­spite his hid­den wounds, Lazhar’s love of chil­dren draws him to help th­ese be­wil­dered kids. But he is in­structed by the prin­ci­pal that he should be hands-off and leave the heal­ing to the grief coun­sel­lor who vis­its the class for 30 min­utes a week. His ap­proach, born of his suf­fer­ing in Al­ge­ria, is to get such pain out in the open and shout about it no mat­ter how in­co­her­ent or stupid the re­sponse. He coaxes his charges to face their teacher’s death head-on by as­sign­ing them to write an es­say on vi­o­lence at school in the hope of giv­ing voice to their pent-up emo­tions.

One of his stu­dents, Alice, writes im­pres­sively about her feel­ings, rip­ping off the cone of si­lence in­stalled by so-called ex­perts over the sit­u­a­tion. Lazhar is ec­static about Alice’s es­say and goes to the prin­ci­pal with the propo­si­tion of send­ing copies to all his stu­dents’ par­ents. He is for­bid­den to do so and is or­dered to con­cen­trate on class­room cur­ricu­lum. Lazhar is adamant that the kids should also learn life lessons in the class­room since life is full of ad­ver­sity.

But Lazhar is only a sub­sti­tute fill­ing in for some­thing lost and will be re­placed. He is also a sub­sti­tute Cana­dian des­per­ately want­ing to be­come a real one. To do it he must con­vince a judge of his wor­thi­ness, an out­rage to some­one who has lost ev­ery­thing he cher­ishes.

Bashir Lazhar, which was the ba­sis for the much dif­fer­ent Os­car-nom­i­nated film Mon­sieur Lazhar, con­cludes with a quiet, touch­ing cathar­sis that stands in op­po­si­tion to the chaotic state of his class­room. The teacher is joined on stage with his star stu­dent, Alice, played by Alanna Essen­burg, to con­clude their mu­tual heal­ing. The Que­bec play­wright clearly takes sides when the trou­bling ques­tion is asked: How do you teach chil­dren with­out touch­ing them?

This play stays with you like that spe­cial teacher you never for­get.

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