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theatre review

The Death of the King is set in the dying days of the Sasanian Empire, in the seventh century during the Muslim conquest of Persia.

Who doesn't love a good murder mystery? Iranian playwright Bahram Beyzaie's The Death of the King is a gripping one, even if it takes an unusual form.

Yazdgerd III has been discovered stabbed to death in a flour mill. A commander from the royal guard (Carlos González-Vio) questions the miller (Ron Kennell) about how the king was killed.

Having no outside witnesses, the miller, his wife (Jani Lauzon) and daughter (Bahareh Yaraghi) try to explain what happened by re-enacting a series of scenes from the night the king showed up at their door dressed like a beggar. They take turns playing the monarch – and each other.

It's a race against clock for all involved: The interrogation takes place while gallows to hang the miller are being built outside – the verdict and punishment being a foregone conclusion. At the same time, enemy troops that the king had been fleeing are getting closer and closer – leading the executioners to fear for their own lives.

Hovering around it all is the question: When a king wants to die, is there any action a subject can take that would not be treason?

In addition to being a murder mystery, The Death of the King is drawn from real history. It is set in the dying days of the Sasanian Empire, in the seventh century during the Muslim conquest of Persia. We're watching the final moments of the Zoroastrian era in what is now Iran, before Islam became the dominant religion.

It's not an old play, however: Beyzaie wrote it around the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and, like most works set in the past, it undoubtedly was meant to comment on the present.

The old king is corrupt, lives decadently and is deaf to the pleas of the poor, but the nearing invaders with black flags do not seem like liberators, particularly in director Soheil Parsa's ominous, expressionistic production.

Whatever point Beyzaie was trying to make here, it has been deemed too dangerous in Iran – his 1981 film of the play has never been permitted a screening in his home country.

While there have been a handful of productions of this play in English – Halifax's Onelight Theatre has staged it under the title Death of Yazdgerd – it was new to me, and I'm grateful to Modern Times Stage Company for introducing me to it.

It strikes me as a 20th-century work that deserves to be far better known, asking universal questions about how much we can know about turning points in history, in an exceedingly playful manner. Dark as the circumstances are, there's a teasing sense of humour throughout, as all the role-playing leads the play to the brink of absurdism. Beyzaie is a writer influenced by European playwrights such as Pirandello, Beckett and Ionesco.

Kennell, in a wonderfully sly performance, best communicates this playfulness – as his cowering miller suddenly becomes regal as his character channels the king he may have killed. In fact, the miller does such a good job of playing the king that the executioners begin to wonder if the king really is dead. (So did I.)

The Death of the King is a poetic drama, too – though, glimpsed through a translation by Parsa and Peter Farbridge, it sometimes sounds merely wordy.

And yet Parsa conquers the static nature of some of the speeches by having his cast speak them in a propulsive manner, which keeps the play whizzing by. While fully psychological acting is not demanded in this style, Kennell, Lauzon and González-Vio are the best at connecting with the words as they machine-gun them out; others at, times, can lapse into shouting. Only Steven Bush, as a Zoroastrian priest, slows the momentum with hesitations.

(A tip of the hat to Colin Doyle, too, for all the fun he has in a small role as a gleefully bullying soldier.)

Trevor Schwellnus has designed a simple, perfect set for the show – a large, round millstone that becomes a stage within the larger stage, a round peg in a square hole. It's here that the miller and his family perform their stories about the death of the king.

After a two-week run in Toronto, Modern Times is taking the show to San Francisco for Stanford University's Festival of Iranian Arts. So if you happen to be reading this on the Web in the Bay Area, take note. This is fascinating play that deserves to be seen – and for all its style and poetry, it leads to a satisfying, why-done-it ending.

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