Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of The Triumph of Love

Mehry Eslaminia, Christine Mirzayan, Sahar Bibiyan,
and Amir Malaklou

Photo by Alessandro Mello
If you've ever attempted to learn another language–with real commitment, not simply to meet a graduation requirement–you will be able to empathize with the characters in Sanaz Toossi's English, which opened this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Peet's Theatre. Elham, Goli, Roya and Omid are students in an English class in Iran, led by Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan), a kind and patient woman who learned the language during the nine years she spent living in Manchester, England.

Each of the four has their own reasons for diving into the herculean task of learning a language notorious for its odd rules and pronunciations (e.g., bough, cough, tough–polish vs. Polish) and requiring them to learn an entirely new alphabet. Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) has a son who has immigrated to "the Canada" and hopes to join him there. Elham (Mehry Eslaminia) has failed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) five times and must pass it before her acceptance at an Australian medical school can be finalized. Goli (Christine Mirzayan), the youngest, seems simply to enjoy the process of learning and has been fascinated by English since she was little.

Omid (Amir Malaklou) is both the most and least mysterious of Marjan's students. Most mysterious because he is clearly the most proficient in English–when the students play a game where they must catch a ball, quickly speak a word from a category (kitchen items, say, or articles of clothing), then pass the ball to another student, he is usually the victor. Yet he is also the least mysterious because his agenda seems clear: to spend time with Marjan, an older woman who appeals to him on some level. Omid often stays after class to watch English language rom-coms with her, but the connection feels more maternal than sexual.

Although the play is set in 2008 (according to the program), there are no indications of that in the text, allowing it to exist in its own timeframe. We know it's not pre-revolutionary Iran, since Marjan watches Notting Hill (which came out in 1999) with Omid, but other than that, we have few clues as to date, which allows Toossi to maintain focus on the characters and their individual struggles and leave all geo-political considerations outside the classroom.

Although English lacks a strong central storyline and there is nothing connecting the characters other than their presence in the same class, each of Marian's students has their own character arc, some of which will lead to surprises–although the denouement for both Elham' and Omid's stories seem to exist as surprise for the sake of surprise, rather than something that is raised or hinted at in the early stages of the play.

The greatest treat in the production is watching this cast at work. As Roya, Sarah Nina Hayon carries herself with an almost regal bearing. Her upright posture and gentle nature belie a ferocity and maternal entitlement that will reveal itself in the last third of the play. Mehry Eslaminia's portrayal of Elham is perhaps the most "actor-ly" of the cast, as her swings in mood and her fiery anger are the most pronounced. Yet Eslaminia is never guilty of chewing the scenery or overplaying her role; she maintains a razor-sharp edge. Christine Mirzayan is delightfully energetic and guileless as the young Goli, especially in the first scenes where she giggles her way through telling the class which form of her name she wishes to be called.

Sahar Bibiyan plays Marjan with tremendous charm, revealing the joy she feels in her role as teacher but somehow manages to also show a sterner side when her pupils fail to meet her requirement of "English only" during class. Amir Malaklou's Omid is best in his scenes with Marjan, even if his reasons for wanting to spend time with her are never overtly stated. As the only man in the room in a male-dominated culture, he's never threatening, yet he manages to communicate his status as a rooster among hens with a delicacy that builds slowly over 100 intermission-less minutes.

Director Mina Morita takes this talented cast and uses their skills to the fullest extent, guiding us through a world few of us have experienced (an adult school in Iran), while simultaneously showing us how frighteningly similar it is to experiences virtually all of us have had: the struggles and competitiveness of a classroom and the terror of not measuring up to a standard–either externally or internally imposed.

English runs through May 7, 2023, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00pm, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $43-$119, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 510-647-2949.