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Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski and Noor Hamdi in The Hooves Belonged to the Deer at the Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

  • Title: The Hooves Belonged to the Deer
  • Written by: Makram Ayache
  • Director: Peter Hinton-Davis
  • Actors: Makram Ayache, Ryan Hollyman
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre in association with Buddies in Bad Times
  • Venue: Tarragon Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 23

Critic’s Pick

The Hooves Belonged to the Deer, a smart and sensual new play by Makram Ayache now on the main stage at Tarragon Theatre, is the most excitingly theatrical piece of new writing to premiere in Toronto so far this season.

The rising Lebanese-Canadian playwright brings together themes of race, religion and sexuality in a story set in small-town Alberta and, on another mythopoetical plane, the Garden of Eden.

That’s ambitious, but the writing works in all its registers – and even, in instances, calls to mind the world-bending of Angels in America-era Tony Kushner.

In the part of the lyrical drama you might say takes place in reality, Izzy (Ayache, in an intricate performance impressive in itself) is the central figure – a 16-year-old just coming to terms with being gay in rural Nod, Alta. He’s an outsider in his small white Christian community in multiple ways – not only queer, but brown and raised in the Druze faith.

Unable to come out to his conservative parents, Izzy gravitates to a father figure he finds in a local Christian youth pastor named Isaac (Ryan Hollyman) – forming a relationship his friend and eventual partner, Will (Eric Wigston), can’t understand given what he believes.

But Isaac is a complex and charismatic character, not an evangelical caricature; he takes Izzy and his searching seriously – and he radiates warmth even as he is clear that Muslims and homosexuals do not go to heaven.

The pastor’s family plays a big part in Ayache’s play, too, even as Izzy’s stays offstage. His second wife Rebecca (Bahareh Yaraghi) is a zealous Christian convert who is estranged from her Muslim family, while his own semi-estranged son Jake (a magnetic Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) is living on the streets in Vancouver. There are multiple families here found in shared beliefs or orientations – and others broken by the same.

Isaac and Izzy’s unusual connection – in which hate hides inside love, or vice-versa – is fascinating to observe because of the deep humanism and honesty in the writing found, too, in Ayache and Hollyman’s equally aching performances.

At the same time as these plot lines are unspooling, there is a biblical story taking place (in Izzy’s mind, it seems) that mashes up Abrahamic faiths and mixes in modern elements.

Aadam (Noor Hamdi) and Hawa (Yaraghi again) – as the first couple are known the Quran – are rocked by the arrival of the white-skinned Steve (Shepherd-Gawinski) in the Garden of Eden

As first this seems like a joke about the homophobic slogan – ”God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” – but it becomes interesting in its own right even as it echoes what is going on in Izzy’s real life.

Is there a creation myth that can pull together Christianity and Islam, white and brown, straight and queer – or are these fated to clash, and individuals in which identities intersect destined to fracture?

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From left, Ryan Hollyman, Makram Ayache and Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski.Cylla von Tiedemann/Supplied

Ayache’s script, which jumps ahead in time in the second act, could easily fall to pieces in an overcooked production, but thankfully the great director Peter Hinton-Davis, working with movement coach Corey Tazmania, has come up with one that brings all the ingredients together and adds its own passion, mystery and vision.

A beautiful three-sided box set designed by Anahita Dehbonehie is filled with a red sandlike substance for the barefoot actors to spread around, a ladder to climb toward temptation, porous walls for the light to get in through and a trough of water separating the action form the audience. There’s plenty to play with and many gorgeous images to accompany Ayache’s words.

Indeed, there is often information overload on stage: Zoomorphic or orgiastic movement happening in one area, while multiple monologues take place elsewhere.

For the most part, this is a rich and rewarding viewing experience – even as it makes you want to go back to see the play again to see what layers you might have missed.

It’s only as The Hooves Belonged to the Deer climaxes that the aesthetic turns confusing when a series of shocking events come on the heels of each other and attention is divided when it should be concentrated.

I must admit that Ayache’s ending overall struck me as a step down in sophistication – a betrayal of some of the characters that I had fallen in love with over the previous two hours, an abandonment of others. But the conclusion and notes I found false didn’t erase my sense that this was a powerful play. It behooves Toronto theatregoers who love stage writing that has a heart and a brain and lives on multiple levels not to miss it.

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