Content warning: this review contains mention of sexual assault.
Oh, what a year for new playwriting.
This year’s blessed us with Claren Grosz’s I love the smell of gasoline, Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova’s First Métis Man of Odesa, and Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton’s Redbone Coonhound, to name just a few. At the centre of this year’s most compelling new plays seem to be riffs on the notion of identity, and the connectedness between the characters onstage and the playwrights holding the pen.
So it goes in Makram Ayache’s daring, complicated drama The Hooves Belonged to the Deer at Tarragon, in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. While Ayache’s rooted-in-truth new play at times buckles under the weight of all it tries to achieve — which is quite a bit in just under two and a half hours — the moments of brilliance binding together the story’s multiple timelines and narrative threads quickly bring any overly ambitious aesthetics right back down to earth.
And those criss-crossed timelines are complex indeed. There’s the world of Aadam (Noor Hamdi), Eve (or Hawa as she’s called in Arabic, played by Bahareh Yaraghi), and Steve (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), pawns at the centre of a creation story warped by self-hatred and prejudice. And here in the modern day there’s Jake (also Shepherd-Gawinski), estranged son of Pastor Isaac (an unnervingly convincing Ryan Hollyman), unhoused and battling addiction as well as his own sexuality.
But blazing at the core of the play is Izzy, a young, queer, Muslim (actually Druze) boy living in rural Alberta. Izzy’s played by Ayache, an unsurprising choice on the part of both him and director Peter Hinton-Davis — the autobiography of the play is part of what makes it so fascinating — and Ayache plays him with such warmth and tenderness that the casting makes perfect sense. Izzy has a crush, Will (an endearing, standout Eric Wigston), but his Muslim parents are unlikely to support a homosexual son, so he keeps their blossoming relationship secret.
In the absence of parents, there’s Pastor Isaac, who’s Bible-thumping, charismatic, opportunistic, and, yes, truly well-meaning. In his eyes, he’s saving Izzy from the devil when he outs him to his parents, when he overloads him with scripture and heirloom Bibles. While Izzy’s own self-hatred is the prevailing antagonist of the play, it’s Pastor Isaac who most consistently coaxes that hatred out, tending to it like a child.
These stories all weave together, tightening around the maladjusted, neurotic, perennially lonely Izzy. When years of unresolved trauma finally catch up to him, it’s quickly — and to my eye, under-foreshadowed by content warnings — in the form of a fully staged oral rape and stabbing at the end of the play.
The Hooves Belonged to the Deer has much to say, and for the most part Ayache’s play communicates what it needs to without losing its train of thought. The Adam/Hawa/Steve creation story can feel frustratingly slow at times; the relationship between Izzy and Pastor Isaac is the most developed and compelling layer of the play, and more often than not I found myself itching to get back into that story whenever our attention was diverted elsewhere. As well, Izzy and the men in his world nurture rich inner lives with nuance and innumerable layers — the same is not always true for Hawa/Rebecca, whose stage time (and emotional development) is comparatively limited.
It’s aesthetically where The Hooves Belonged to the Deer at times bites off more than it can chew. Apples as symbolism for temptation begin to feel a little redundant by the play’s final breath, and a water mechanism which drenches Hawa feels unnecessarily showy for little dramaturgical payoff. Nevertheless, Anahita Dehbonehie’s set is striking and provocative, a stage covered in red dirt with a ladder, table, and benches to suggest the play’s many settings. Hinton-Davis uses those benches well, bringing slow, gentle motion to the background of scenes using whichever actors aren’t needed in a given scene (Corey Tazmania is the choreographer and intimacy director). Whittyn Jason’s lighting design, too, is excellent, using footlights to cast menacing shadows on Pastor Isaac’s face during sermons and disturbing pep talks.
The Hooves Belonged to the Deer is a major accomplishment for both Ayache and Tarragon, perhaps the most high-reaching and brave production of this remarkable season at Tarragon. And despite its occasional falters, Ayache’s play punches well above its weight in terms of tackling uncomfortable, deeply personal content through use of religious allegory.
The Hooves Belonged to the Deer runs at Tarragon March 28 through April 23, 2023.