Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Seriously, though, maybe we can exonerate ourselves, in our apparent powerlessnessbecause it may actually require someone from a far more desperate part of the world to begin to address the problem.
With that in mind comes playwright Evelyne De La Cheneliere's one-man show about an Algerian refugee who's made his way to Canada. As Bashir Lazhar, St. Louisan J. Samuel Davis is delightful and compelling, seeming to channel the best of nearly every African immigrant I have had the good fortune to know in the last 10 years (and I've had the good fortune to know dozens).
This Algerian has no resume, nor any letters of reference, nor even a work visabut he does come into an elementary school looking for a job at exactly the right moment. The regular sixth-grade teacher has suddenly left, by means we have yet to discover. (Bashir is humorously grappling with his introduction and an explanation to his students, when the lights come up at first.) But his own tragedies, fleeing violence in North Africa, will intertwine with a local horror as the story unfolds. How can light-hearted love (between a teacher and his students) exist side-by-side wretched tragedy? The simplest answer is, because this is Upstream Theatre, and transcendence to them is like breathing.
Company founder Philip Boehm directs this 80-minute performancebut somehow we are transformed nearly as much as this substitute teacher, ourselves: reduced to the level of adoring eleven year olds, as Mr. Davis leads the class. He is playful and kind, mystified and wistful, and gently commanding too, though he sometimes finds fitting in with innocent children, in a peaceful land, harder than he'd expected.
Bashir Lazhar runs afoul of the school administration, and of the immigration authorities, and even of the students themselves. Everything that could break his heart comes against him here. And somehow it is the strangest (and most quietly astonishing) thing to watch as he must scramble to overcome yet another heartbreak along the way.
If you've seen as many outstanding Upstream Theatre shows as I have, you might think it's impossible that they could come up with one more truly magical ending, in a show that seems anything but that for the first 79 minutes (except for the magical love surrounding Bashir). But, if you already have a background with this amazing group, you will certainly know that magic comes from far beyond tyrannical borders, from across a trace that few have traveled.
Translated by Morwyn Brebner, with another great live musical underscore by Farshid Soltanshahi. Through February 15, 2015. Visit www.upstreamtheatre.org for specific show times. Show times vary by date. At the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand, between Saint Louis University and the Fox Theatre. Parking is often available around 7 p .m. on nearby Lindell Blvd.
* Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US
** Equity Membership candidate