Have you met our new friend? thoughts on Nassim at the Citadel

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are many things I can’t tell you about Nassim (tempting though it is).

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(a) It just wouldn’t be fair. The show created by the Iranian playwright artist Nassim Soleimanpour, who travels the world with it, is not only surprising, but it’s actually designed as a surprise — for you, and for the actor who’s in it. And (b) it wouldn’t even be revealing. At every performance, a different local actor walks out onstage in Nassim and sees the script, and its stage directions, for the first time. The old theatre truism that every show is a different experience is on the money!

Nassim. Photo supplied.

Sometimes the playwright’s instructions are flat and precise (“read whatever appears on the screen in a loud voice”). Sometimes they’re puckish and you have the fun of watching a top-flight actor put on the spot. Sometimes they’re open-ended and enigmatic; reflexes are tested and choices are called for. Nassim is playful that way, an impromptu theatrical encounter between a resourceful playwright and his audience via a game actor.

On Tuesday night, that actor was the alert, impressively dexterous Belinda Cornish who is (not coincidentally) a star improviser. She gave every indication of enjoying herself in the course of connecting with her new friend. And we got to meet the quick-witted Soleimanpour himself, in person this time, though silent, as a stage partner/stage manager/actor’s assistant. Jeff Haslam, Farren Timoteo, NASRA, Sarah Chan and John Ullyatt get their turn in Nassim in the course of the week.

In Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a sort of animal fable/adventure about the ripple effects of oppression which played the 2013 Canoe Festival, the actor onstage has never seen the script before he/she/they open a sealed envelope onstage. Since playwright was prevented by the regime from leaving the country, that fable had a personal and political edge: Soleimanpour had never been able to see his own play onstage in his own language, Farsi. 

Now Soleimanpour can travel (he lives in Berlin), though his plays have never been performed in his home country or language. Onstage the playwright has a certain playful charm about him. And that sweet quality fuels a play that’s all about language, and making friends across the language divide. Nassim is also about what we share — a complex wistfulness about home and what that means, the universal urge to tell stories that start with “once upon a time.”

Is Nassim a play? So much of it fractures, or winks at, the usual framing of plays you’re thinking that, no, it’s in a theatre but why not call it a theatrical experience instead? And yet it is a play: there are characters who connect, there are stories, there’s an arc. This much I can tell you: What happens will captivate you, make you smile and sometimes laugh, and in the end touch your heart. 

Nassim runs through Sunday in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre. You’ll never have seen anything quite like it. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.

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