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Prisoner of Tehran: Compelling, but too fast-paced for its own good

Barbara Yaraghi stars in Prisoner of Tehran, based on the bestselling international memoir by Marina Nemat.

3 out of 4 stars

The story that Martina Nemat tells in her best-selling memoir Prisoner of Tehran is so extraordinary, it can't fail to hold your attention in any format.

In 1982, at just 16 years old, Nemat was thrown into Iran's notorious Evin Prison for protesting the new fundamentalist regime along with many of her teenage friends. In order to escape execution and save her family, she eventually had to convert from Christianity to Islam and marry one of her torturers.

Maja Ardal, creator of the acclaimed one-women show You Fancy Yourself, has now adapted this recent Canada Reads finalist into a fast-paced play. It jumps back and forth between Nemat's time as a prisoner – both in Evin and in her marriage – and earlier, carefree days dancing to the Bee Gees at discotheques and falling in puppy love with a young Muslim working to overthrow the Shah.

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Recent Humber College theatre graduate Bahareh Yaraghi has a winning charisma as the brave Marina, while Razi Shawahdeh and Mirian Katrib channel all the other male and female characters.

Having Shawahdeh play both Marina's pre-revolution beau and her jailer-husband Ali highlights how thin the line is between the oppressed and the oppressor – and makes Nemat's inspiring story of survival seem also like a timely note of caution amid all the hopeful excitement over the Arab Spring.

Under the direction of Ardal, all three actors paint their characters in broad strokes that verge on the cartoonish.

This style might have been more appropriate for a stage adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, another autobiographical retelling of the story of Iran's Islamic Revolution through the eyes of a young girl. But here, amid a succession of short, staccato scenes, the effect is to keep us at arms-length from the terrible events depicted and from Marina's carefully contained anguish.

Shawahdeh and Katrib ultimately do little to distinguish between their many parts. While the narrative only occasionally becomes confusing due to this, it does make it hard to become too attached to any of the ill-fated men and women who surround resilient Marina.

Curiously enough, it takes Marina's arrival in Toronto and her account of working at Swiss Chalet to finally arouse emotion. A tender scene where the new Canadian observes an elderly customer in mourning for his wife is allowed to breathe and is quietly heart-breaking as a result.

Perhaps the effect is intended, to illustrate how trauma can be repressed for years and then bubble to the surface later in surprising situations. Still, Prisoner of Tehran might benefit from a less frenetic pace, so we could truly experience the enormity of Marina's teenage predicament instead of just watch it flash by.

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If you find yourself wondering how Nemat remembers every detail of this awful experience so clearly, her memoir contains a preface acknowledging the "fragmented and foggy" nature of her memory. There, she also notes that she's reconstructed dialogue, changed names and merged and reshaped the lives of some fellow prisoners.

Here, there's no such note in the program. Perhaps theatregoers don't require this caveat, but the play is billed as "Prisoner of Tehran: A True Story."

Unlike the attention-seeking Canada Reads judge Anne-France Goldwater, I have no doubt as to the essential truth of Nemat's telling of her story. After the recent controversy over a handful of embellishments and inventions inserted into Mike Daisey's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, however, perhaps theatre creators need to become more careful about how they label their work.

Prisoner of Tehran runs until April 28.

Prisoner of Tehran

  • Written by Marina Nemat
  • Adapted for the stage by Maja Ardal
  • Directed by Maja Ardal
  • Starring Bahareh Yaraghi
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

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