In Sundry Languages a Feast for the Ears

Toronto Laboratory Theatre’s In Sundry Languages

Photo by Henry Heng Lu
The company in a photo by Henry Heng Lu

NB: 3 chances left to catch it at Toronto Fringe!!!

Reviewed by Heather Fitzsimmons Frey

Date reviewed: July 8, 2017
Remaining Run: July 13 at 5:15 pm, July 14 at noon, July 16 at 6:45 pm, Theatre Passe Muraille, Fringe Festival Toronto

Company: Toronto Laboratory Theatre
Art Babayants – Director
Shelley Liebembuk – Dramaturge
Giorelle Diokno – Stage and Production Manager
Cristina Kindl – Assistant Dramaturge
Montgomery Martin – Video Dramaturge
Paul J. Stoesser – Lighting Designer
Jasmine Gui – Publicity and Front of House
Mara Teitelbaum – ESL Outreach
Tatiana von Beelen – Artwork

Cast: Arfina, Art Babayants, Ziying Goria Gao, Ahmed Moneka, Mario Lourenço, Yury Ruzhyev, Lavinia Salinas, Angela Sun

Originally devised by Clayton Gray, Yury Ruzhyev, Felicia Nelson, Mark Dallas, Lyla Belsey, Sepideh Shariati, Amy Packwood, Maria Prozorova, Danielle Son, Ziyeng Goria Gao, Mario Lourenço, Joy Lee-Ryan

Toronto Laboratory Theatre declares that its show, In Sundry Languages, “looks and feels like Toronto.” The collective creation devised by the cast, features seven performers who not only speak with English as a second, third, or fourth language, but also speak at least one other language on stage, without translation. The show is a collection of scenes featuring bittersweet encounters between people navigating daily Toronto life, as well as stories about Toronto residents trying to put “others” into neat and easy to understand boxes. People who have seen versions of In Sundry Languages before may want to know that this iteration features 60% new material.

Arfina and Ahmed Moneka in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

The piece is a collection of thematically connected scenes or units that are either narrative-driven, movement-based, or motivated by the need to explore a situation. In the first scene, an actor whose dominant language is Russian auditions for a role in a movie. The actor (Yury Ruzhyev) clearly won’t get the part of “Russian gangster” because the director does not think that the actor has a stereotypical mobster accent – although he does speak with accented English. My 12 year old son was my companion, and he commented that not only must it depend on where you learned to speak English (Ireland, England, Canada …) but also that “Russia is a huge country: there must be so many different Russian accents.” Like most of the scenes, it is laugh-out-loud funny without being didactic, and is critical of the way so-called multicultural Canada addresses difference.

Director Art Babayants chose other scenes featuring spoken languages (Arabic, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and English), but the show as a whole also acknowledges culturally-specific body language, the language of music, the language of soccer, and the way language can shift via online communication like Skype. Babayants plays the piano throughout, underscoring the emotions and rhythms of each scene. An on-stage camera and screen often directs the audience’s gaze to a performer’s hands at one point, legs at another, eyes, and even a radical close up of a performer’s tongue. For me, the effect pointed out the significance of perspective, and also highlighted the fragmented way by which I listen— as I try to find clues to help me understand and communicate with others.

Lavinia Salinas in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

The performers skillfully conveyed a wide range of emotions and often subtle narratives even when I could not understand their words. When I lost the details of a scene, I was riveted by precise body language accompanying the words. I felt like I was being told something that simply could not be explained as well in English, something that I still couldn’t quite grasp because I didn’t have those non-English language concepts to work with.

After the performance, conversations spilled out onto the sidewalk. I overheard a young woman saying that she thought the scene about trying to rent an apartment in which the receptionist used the word “blah” as a placeholder for unfamiliar English must have been how her parents felt when they first arrived in Canada. Another enthused about a scene in which people attempted to order coffee with sugar and milk. My son wanted to discuss a repeated vignette about two neighbours, one of whom asks the other “where are you from?”

My own favourite was the final piece: an encounter between the Russian actor we met in the first scene (Ruzhyev) and an audience member who fluently spoke another language before learning English. The actor selected a man who spoke Turkish, and both men sat together on the lip of the stage. Without speaking any English, they taught each other their names and then the words in Russian or Turkish for the sky, the stars, the heart, and even the moon. I realized that this was the first scene in which linguistic difference was not presented as a challenge or a problem but rather as a vehicle for joy. When the exchange shifted to English, the actor asked the audience member about flirting and love-making in another language. Gently supported and punctuated by Art Babayants’ piano, the conversation reveled in the beauty of linguistic and cultural difference. I was delighted that the audience member joined the cast for the curtain call.

Mario Lourenco in a photo by Matthew Sarookanian

When I was in Cape Town this summer I discovered that theatre audiences there are used to hearing multiple languages spoken on stage, and that they expect to not understand everything. Subsequently, South African performers know that at least 1/3 of the audience may not understand them well at any given time, and so their performances require unique skills. In the case of In Sundry Languages the performance is about the multiple languages we heard, just as it is about stereotyping, racializing, identity, and the challenges of unfamiliar “newness.” This show is entertaining and thought-provoking. Even though the audience would have to work a little harder, next I would love to see a show, perhaps with some of the same actors, in which multiple languages are part of the storytelling but not the focus of story.

Production photos by Henry Heng Lu and Matthew Sarookanian

Author Bio
Heather Fitzsimmons Frey holds a PhD from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. She is a Banting Scholar, conducting post-doctoral research at York University.

Her work addresses performances of identities, including gendered and cultural identities, especially in theatre for and by for young people.

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