Hope & Hell Theatre Company
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Stage, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Jan. 21, 2017 to Feb. 5, 201
Review by GRAHAM HICKS, HicksBiz.com
Disgraced is a damned fine play, with its current production at the Citadel Theatre being good, but not great. It is part of the Citadel’s season, but is produced by the Toronto-based Hope and Hell Theatre Company. In other words, nobody from the Citadel Theatre had any input into what’s on stage.
If one of the Citadel’s past cadre of directors – artistic director emeritus Bob Baker, former associate directors James MacDonald and Tom Wood – had been at the artistic reins, this would likely have been a great show. All three directors are masters of this particular style of play. (I can’t yet include new Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran. His directorial debut won’t come until the 2017/18 season.)
Disgraced is one of those relentlessly contemporary dramas that ticks off all the Broadway award-winning boxes - glamourous 40-something New Yorkers with the obligatory art dealer, a chichi artist and ambitious lawyers, set in a swish New York City apartment. Any regular Citadel theatre-goer has seen this style of show many times – God of Carnage comes to mind.
But Disgraced veers off the beaten path into fascinating, in-your-face psycho-drama by adding something new, ethno-drama.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s underlying suggestion is that no matter how sophisticated, intelligent, open-minded and accepting we might strive to be, some form of tribalism lurks below.
In Disgraced, the tribalism explodes out of the main character Amir – An ambitious bully of a lawyer who is as American as apple pie, but was born to South Asian parents. He was raised in a Muslim family but has in no uncertain terms renounced his religious heritage and ethnic traditions he considers illogical, backward and demeaning to women.
Or has he?
Raoul Bhaneja has Amir covered – he does a masterful job of portraying the intense, shark-like lawyer with a far-too-short fuse. As Amir’s world starts to fall apart , Bhaneja splendidly unleashes the darker sides of his character’s personality and his conflicted allegiances that cause all hell to break loose.
One’s admiration for this playwright comes in how intricately the plot-lines are knit together. Everything is believable, each set-up carefully furthers the play You will spend your ride home analyzing how each scene so cleverly built the play. Playwright Akhtar’s dexterity in making Amir’s personality and situation believable is worth the price of admission alone.
This production is not, however, directed with the finesse we have come to expect on the Citadel stage. While the pivotal scene is a tour de force, the audience isn't really included. The on-stage movement is clunky. We don’t grow in sympathy or empathy with the characters or even get angry at them. The emotions – good, bad and wretched – don’t resonate. The emotional under-currents of this show are not explored by director Robert Ross Parker.
This weakness is probably due to the casting of Bhaneja’s real-life wife Birgitte Solem as Amir’s wife Emily. She simply didn’t fill the role. A glaring example: In the opening scene crucial words are exchanged between Amir and Emily about some important historical portrait. Solem’s voice was far too soft. Her words could not be heard more than 10 rows into the audience. As that reference was crucial to the symbolism that closes the play, most of the audience did not “get” the ending and walked out quite confused.
Disgraced is a powerful metaphor for all the controversy and societal schisms – immigration, terrorism, America First, Donald Trump - swirling about us and intensifying by the day.
This show hits most of its targets, but unfortunately doesn’t fulfill the full potential of the script.