At the Toronto Fringe Festival 2021, Nowadays Theatre presents two new scenes for Mohammad Yaghoubi’s episodic play Dance of Torn Papers. Birthday Present and Mother are staged here as an immersive 360˚film experience—presented in both English and Farsi—allowing the viewer to shift their visual perspective or choose their preferred language.
I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen of Yaghoubi’s work. He blends sincere emotionality with restrained, meta-theatrical constructs, pulling you into characters’ lives yet also forcing you to contextual them. The pieces presented here don’t have the overt meta quality I’ve come to expect, but the emotions are high—especially in Mother.
In Birthday Present, a man discovers that the woman he has been intimate with is a sex worker. As she gets dressed and prepares to leave, his behaviour becomes increasingly obsessive. After figuring out who paid for her services, he begs her to stay and rants about the unfairness of society’s legal and social attitudes towards sex-work.
Because the woman is pleasant but detached, the man’s increasing intensity starts to feel very cringe-y. He’s possessive yet, at the same time, aggressively sex-positive and progressive. It hints at a desperation and deep frustration festering under his seemingly laid-back persona.
In Mother, a woman is in tremendous pain from some undefined illness. Terrified that death is near, she yearns to make contact with her son. Her own mother—a constant, comforting presence—never leaves her side. We later discover the surprising truth about her presence there—a twist which doesn’t disrupt the dynamics of the scene, which force the viewer to sit with this woman’s unrelenting panic.
The scene is harrowing to watch, though there are glimmers of hope and hints at kindness. The eerie, stylized opening to the scene seems to foreshadow later revelations.
I watched both the Farsi (with English subtitles) and English versions of both scenes. In Mother, the experience was essentially identical, with the same actors performing—Aida Keykhaii and Maryam Mahdavi. Keykhaii is such a fierce presence. She manages to sustain the character’s acute suffering without it ever feeling histrionic.
Birthday Present, though, was a slightly different experience for me with the two sets of actors—Olivia Viggiani and Nicholas Koy Santillo (English), Sina Sassanifard and Mahsa Ershadifar (Farsi). The energy, specifically from the male character, is unique enough to warrant a viewing of each. And the process of contrasting the two suits Yaghoubi’s work.
Both scenes in Dance of Torn Papers are compelling, especially with the interactive 360˚ aspect. They do feel vaguely unmoored, though, like they’ve been lifted from some larger context—which they have.