The Old Globe Presents "English", in the Round, by Iranian-American Playwright Sanaz Toossi

A play with Soul, Heart, and a Lot of Truth!

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

(from left) Ari Derambakhsh, Pooya Mohseni, Joe Joseph, and Tara. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
Definitely, the year has started strong in San Diego, and after seeing almost ten plays from the first week of January to now, I can happily say it is not stopping. And what a joy it is in these trying times when it seems all who should be allies, are trying their hardest to block the craft and its nature. Anyway, my ADD always takes me in many directions...

The Old Globe presented its first production of the year in the round. Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, the Obie Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, the play English, written by Sanaz Toossi and directed by PigPen Theatre Co.'s Arya Shahi. English had not been presented in the round before. San Diego gave it this structural and let's say, visual challenge and they definitely rose to it. 

This play gave me so many feelings and with that, so much to say that I do not even know how to begin lol... I can start by saying that work well crafted shines through and onto the stage. English is a good play with a lot of soul, a lot of heart, and a lot of truth!. As it can resonate with many and maybe create some empathy for the rest. 

Set in a classroom outside Tehran in Iran, four students are enrolled in classes in English for a proficiency exam. There are different reasons like getting student visas or communicating with loved ones. Sadra Tehrani's scenic design paid attention to detail not just by including the student and teacher desks, but also by including the books under the desk and the props that give room to play as well as the lights in the room. I do not understand why schools, offices, and hospitals use those terrible LED strip or tape lights. Tehrani included them and it definitely made it look real along with Amanda Zieve's lighting design that shows this brightness I am referring to with the LED and dimming it to mark the different times in the day.

The classroom is led by Marjan (Pooya Mohseni) who lived many years in the UK and has been teaching the class since being back home. Roya (Mary Apick) is a new grandmother who has a residency in Canada, Goli (Ari Derambakhsh) wants to study in Australia, Elham (Tara Grammy) has a history with the TOEFL and needs to pass, and Omid (Joe Joseph) is applying for a green card. Like in all classrooms, there is the shy student, the overachiever, the competitive one, and so on. The casting (Caparelliotis Casting) for the piece is fitting and each actor imprints the different shifting personalities of the characters: I can assure you, that we all sympathized with Roya and her situation. Goli wants to learn and be a better speaker of English. Elham is mega competitive and gets frustrated easily (man how I identified with her), and Omid is fluent but just needs to belong. Afsaneh Aayani's costume design is simple yet functional for Omid and for the ladies, using colorful and stylish headscarves and tunics. The backpacks also shine a light on each of the personalities using prints and solid colors.

Mary Apick and Ari Derambakhsh. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
As time goes by and the students get to know one another while trying to learn the language and all that it entails, situations and truths come afloat in a contrasting context that is funny, truly moving and sometimes heartbreaking. 

Even though the play is a one-act of an hour and forty minutes, I could have enjoyed fewer transitions. Megumi Katayama's sound design made it go smoothly with sound and musical effects, as well as Iranian songs including "Ashegham Man" by Iranian female singer Delkash, which means "I am in Love" and it is part of one of the key moments in the piece. 

Coming in to see the show, I thought it was going to be bilingual and there would be dialogues in Farsi and English but no. It was resolved more creatively as it is practically all in English but when they are speaking in Farsi, the accent just shifts to a Valley girl-like tone. When they are speaking in English, they do so with a thick accent which I thought was brilliant and hilarious. As someone who has been part of an Iranian family for over ten years, I can attest this was spot on. Bravo to Dialect Coach, Ana Bayat. (who has also worked in the series Tehran, which is a favorite in this household). 

Another fact that was spot-on and with this I too acknowledge both Sanaz Toossi's writing as well as Arya Shahi's direction, is the illustration of the struggle when being different or having an accent when speaking in another language. This happens all around the world but, in a country where many are monolingual, having an accent has been historically perceived as a flaw. As not good enough when in fact, it is the opposite as there are double, or triple the amount of words, sentences, and the always tough, conjugations. The complexity of practically having different personas that come with the language using varied tones, and volumes. Thinking of one language while speaking the other and how it is put in the piece, how isolating that can be.

English balances out the personal story behind each character with the commonality of the challenge that learning English represents along with its Western perceptions, for example, changing a name, Americanizing it to fit better, and being "pronounceable". I cannot share enough stories with you when I introduce myself in a room: "Aaaaleeeejanddrrra", "Oh caliente!"...again, anyway... 
Tara Grammy and Pooya Mohseni. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
There is a phrase within the play that says "Our mothers get to choose our name, not foreigners". It sucked the wind out of me. Toossi also sprinkled a hidden nod to the Iranian poets through a complaint one of the students has about Farsi. 

The play is constantly contrasting creatively and logically as it has a heavy, historical, specific premise that unfolds and keeping its cultural essence, becomes relatable while definitely hitting different fibers. Because, regardless of language and place of origin, this is about the unknown, fear, identity, and judgment. Something we all have gone through. 

Currently playing until February 25 with a Post Show Forum on Tuesday, February 13, and an Open-Caption Performance on Saturday, February 17 at 2:00 p.m

For more information please click here.

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