Hallaj, Modern Times Stage Company's theatrical hagiography of the martyred mystic Mansur e-Hallaj, is at its most mesmerizing when it falls into ecstatic fits.
Director Soheil Parsa inserts trance-like dances in between the production's more traditionally scripted scenes about the life of this ninth-century Persian poet and pacifist.
On a half-lit stage, the cast members leave their characters behind and jerk and shake rhythmically around the stage over composer Thomas Ryder Payne's otherworldly score, until they are suddenly brought back to earth by harsh boxes of light that interrupt the movement and lock them back into their characters' cells, metaphorical or otherwise.
Hallaj begins with its title character – played by Parsa's co-writer and frequent collaborator Peter Farbridge – in a Baghdad prison awaiting execution for having spoken a four-word phrase deemed heretical by the Caliph.
Chief of police Nasr (a gleefully evil John Ng, who would surely twirl his mustache if he was taking part in Movember) comes to torment him and a crowd outside calls for his stoning, but Hallaj is unmoved – he does not fear death, and even seeks it. When his wife Jamil (Beatriz Pizano) and son are threatened later in the play, however, his earthly concerns come into conflict with his spiritual beliefs.
Hallaj – whose life is told in a series of death-row flashbacks here – seems like a cross between Jesus and Gandhi to a neophyte like me.
The independent thinker, who lived from about 858 to 922 AD, gets in trouble with religious authorities for teaching that rather than spending all their money on pilgrimages to Mecca, Muslims should pray at home and give their extra money to the poor. And when his impatient follower Sharif (Carlos González-Vio) suggests arming slaves and followers to overthrow the unjust Caliph, Hallaj refuses to consider violence – it will only turn them into the next oppressive regime.
"We must defeat the idea of the regime, not the regime," he says, in a phrase that resonates amid the cautious optimism of the Arab Spring.
Whereas Hallaj was in his 60s when he was cut into pieces in front of a crowd and entered history, Farbridge is relatively young, which increases the sense of a man cut off in his prime. While Farbridge does seem to be genuinely possessed in Parsa's interstitial choreography, in the slightly choppy scenes that surround it, he is not always convincing as a spiritual leader of men. With his dishevelled hair, slumped shoulders and pedantic tone, he seems like your average religious-studies grad student whose charisma wouldn't extend beyond the campus.
Tales of martyrdom have a long history in theatre, but they face a basic dramatic problem of featuring heroes who are too perfect and, therefore, somewhat bland. As a character, Hallaj is not only right all the time, but has a direct connection with God, while those around come across as sketches. Various friends and followers express fear or skepticism in the play, but none stick around for very long to provide a compelling foil.
Beatriz Pizano does find a certain poignancy in Jamil, who loves Hallaj but doesn't fully understand him, while Stewart Arnott provides a wonderfully profane presence as a fellow inmate who only appears as a head in a hole in the prison wall.
While Angela Thomas's non-specific costuming of robes and cloaks lends the production a certain Star Wars sensibility, Trevor Schwellnus's set is divinely inspired – a simple black backdrop through which veiny slivers of coloured light seep. It hints at a glowing world beyond this one that Hallaj has access to and we can only glimpse.
It also literalizes a certain Canadian secular saint and poet's greatest line: "There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." The production's physical beauty, rather than the script, makes Hallaj a worthwhile introduction to a interesting figure largely unknown outside of the Islamic world.
Hallaj runs until Dec. 4.
- Written by Peter Farbridge and Soheil Parsa
- Directed by Soheil Parsa
- Starring Peter Farbridge
- At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto