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Theatre Reviews The Road to Paradise: Ravages of Afghan war, up close and personal

Afghan actress Parwin Mushtael’s husband was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist in Kabul.

Chris Gallow

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Road to Paradise
Written by
Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris
Directed by
Christopher Morris
Actors
Samiya Mumtaz, Christine Horne, Parwin Mushtael
Venue
Buddies in Bad Times
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, November 28, 2015

How many plays have you seen that have saved a life? The Road to Paradise, currently on stage at Buddies in Bad Times, is one. A triptych of stories inspired by the war in Afghanistan, it stars real-life Afghan actress Parwin Mushtael as a fictional Afghan actress with a story very similar to her own.

The first woman to appear on television after the Allied invasion led to the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul, Mushtael became a target of Islamic fundamentalists. In December of 2008, one showed up at her door and shot her husband to death.

In The Road to Paradise – which is written by Christopher Morris and Jonathan Garfinkel, and directed by Morris – Mushtael plays an actress named Wajma known for playing a comic male character on television.

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Like Mushtael's husband, Wajma's husband has been murdered for "allowing" his wife to act. And like Mushtael, Wajma has made it out of Afghanistan to Canada as a refugee – but has not escaped the memories of the murder.

Indeed, Wajma acts out what happened over and over – using her skills as a professional actress to try to get into the mind and body of the small-town zealot who shot her husband. At first, she performs the murderer as the walking, talking cartoon that made her famous – but gradually her performance of him becomes more real, more pathetic, even sad. Will she be able to truly comprehend why a person would do something so horrific? And at what cost does such radical artistic empathy come?

Mushtael's performance – in her native Dari, with surtitles in English – does not always fit into the show that Morris and Garfinkel have crafted around her, but it is a riveting one. And the fact that the actress is so close to the character gives them both added dimensions. (If you want an example of how refugees enrich life in Canada, here is one.)

The Road to Paradise is a passion project for Morris – who has been working on the play since 2008 and has travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Petawawa, Ont., to research the show in the process.

Along the way, Morris met Mushtael after a learning of a Kabul production of Love's Labour's Lost she was performing in. That was before her husband was killed – and Morris was the first person she called after his murder. The Canadian director helped the Afghan actress to escape, first to Pakistan, then spearheaded a campaign that brought her and her two children over to Canada where they now live.

If The Road to Paradise did not exist, would they still be alive?

All that is, of course, outside the play, the performance, the experience of a spectator. Not enough of that true story's vitality makes it into the show itself – and so it is up to you to bring it in yourself as an audience member.

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Although it has been developed over almost eight years, The Road to Paradise is told in a concise hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Designer Gillian Gallow traps the audience in a metallic box for the duration, covering the floor with bits of cork that look like sand. The actors perform in the centre with spectators observing from all sides.

Mushtael's story forms the final third of the show. The first deals with Dr. Chaudry (Pakistani actress Samiya Mumtaz), who runs a school that aims to rehabilitate thwarted child suicide bombers in Pakistan. She works with a 13-year-old named Sohail (the excellent Andrew Lawrie), while his mother Bibi (Cheri Maracle) deals with the repercussions of her son's act in a nearby village.

The second chapter follows two wives of Canadian soldiers. Vicki (a heartbreaking Christine Horne) loses her husband to a suicide bomber, while Brandi (Maracle again) gets her husband Danny (Beau Dixon) returned to her without a physical scratch on him, but deeply disturbed.

It is this centre of The Road to Paradise that is the strongest as theatre. In part, this is because Morris and Garfinkel are less reverent about the material closest to home and give it room to breathe. A scene where Vicki lays her head on the corpse of her dead husband – played by Lawrie, standing up, in the nude – is both unsettling and beautiful. Another where Brandi's husband Danny hallucinates a dead soldier pulling his way across the stage using only one arm is flabbergasting.

You may have read in this newspaper about the shocking number of Canadian soldiers who have committed suicide since returning from Afghanistan – but here are theatrical images that communicate something in a way that cannot be replicated in a series of articles. The chapter Garfinkel and Morris have set in Pakistan, on the other hand, is bereft of such theatricality or characterization – and so seems a poor cousin of journalism.

The final chapter itself has a rough, unfinished feel to it – indeed, in some ways, The Road to Paradise feels less polished than it did in an earlier incarnation in Calgary in 2013 (under the name Dust). But with Mushtael in it, the show is something to witness as well as watch.

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The Road to Paradise continues to Nov. 28 (buddiesinbadtimes.com).

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