Review: ENGLISH at The Old Globe

Playing through February 25th

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Review: ENGLISH at The Old Globe

When someone first learns to speak and express themselves through language, it is most usually at a time of their life when their memory and understanding of things are still pliable. It’s easier to learn when not simultaneously fighting ingrained rules of language, behavior, and expression.  ENGLISH, is a funny and contemplative play written by Sanaz Toossi that explores the vulnerability, and determination, of adults of a variety of ages who are learning English.  ENGLISH is playing at The Old Globe through February 25th.

It is set in 2008 in Iran, in an English class for adults studying for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).  The instructor Marjan (Pooya Mohseni) is sensitive to her students' goals, but strict as she enforces an “English only” rule in her classroom to help them each get used to speaking and listening to English.  

Each student is there for different and personal reasons.  Goli (Ari Derambakshs) is 18 years old, young, optimistic, and eager to learn.  Roya (Mary Apick) is learning to be able to move to Canada and communicate with her son and her granddaughter who live there. Omid (Joe Joseph) speaks with solid fluency and is practicing for an upcoming green card interview.  Elham (Tara Grammy) is very smart, driven, and highly accomplished having been accepted into medical school in Australia, but finds English flattening and frustrating.  This makes Omid’s seemingly casual competency even more aggravating for her.

Review: ENGLISH at The Old Globe
Joe Joseph and Tara Grammy in The Old Globe’s production of ENGLISH. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The entire cast is excellent, and they each have funny and poignant moments to shine. Mohseni as the teacher Marjan, is excellent as she leads the class, but internally seems at a crossroads. As the English skills of the class improve, her skills, which were excellent due to living the better part of a decade in the UK, seem to stagnate since no one else in her life speaks the language.

Derambakshs as Goli is sweet and optimistic, finding pleasure in learning as much as the possibilities knowing the language may offer.  Apick is heartbreaking as a grandmother who wants to connect with her family but wonders why she has to give up her language and culture to join them in Canada. Joseph as Omid is charming but cagey about his fluency and his plans.  Grammy is very funny as the competitive and firey Elham, who is quickly confrontational when she gets frustrated. Elham’s enjoyment of one pivotal character reveals brought to mind another language's word, “schadenfreude.”

Review: ENGLISH at The Old Globe
(from left) Joe Joseph, Pooya Mohseni, and Mary Apick in The Old Globe’s production of ENGLISH. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Directed by Arya Shahi, ENGLISH is a comedy about communication, and a look at what it means to be understood. It explores deeper waters while giving the experience of ease without heaviness, or as one character describes something “it floats.” Each person, their background, age, and motivations reflect each character's many facets.

There is a lot of opportunity for comedy in this classroom setting and the play offers plenty of laughs, from teacher’s pet rivalries, to playing classroom learning games, and basic conversations (“What’s your favorite color?”) when practicing.

As funny as it is, there is a sensitive core lurking just beneath, touching on the variety of pain points learning English brings up for this class.   Trying to reformat your way of thinking and speaking can feel like a rejection of home and can challenge the idea of who you are and what you want. How much of your identity are you willing to sacrifice to assimilate? What happens if you get caught between those two worlds, with the chance of not fitting into either fully again?

The use of the classroom scenic design by Sadra Tehrani, combined with the lighting design by Amanda Zieve work together well to evoke both the setting and the sense of time passing. Costumes by Afsaneh Aayani and sound design by Megumi Katayama add additional color and depth overall.

The play, which is all in English uses an effective device to differentiate between when they are speaking Farsi or their newly emerging English skills.  When “speaking” Farsi they speak colloquial and non-accented American English, but when speaking English their cadence slows down, the accents become more pronounced, they drop words and they struggle to combine them all into a sentence.  

To learn a new language is both liberating and painful, no matter how accomplished or smart you are, but it is also an act of vulnerability and bravery to ask to be understood in any language.

How To Get Tickets

ENGLISH playing at The Old Globe through February 25th.  For ticket and showtime information go to wwwtheoldglobe.org 

Photo Credit: Photo by Rich Soublet II.




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