THE SHEEP AND THE WHALE by Ahmed Ghazali, translated by Bobby Theodore, directed by Soheil Parsa, with Soo Garay, Julian Richings, Andy Velasquez, Jim Warren and Karim Morgan. Presented by Cahoots and Modern Times in association with Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). In previews, opens Tuesday (February 20) and runs to March 11, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. Pwyc-$30. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
To understand the problems of new Canadians, actor Andy Velasquez doesn't need all those ads urging employers to hire an immigrant.
His family moved to Canada from Chile after the 1973 Pinochet coup, and Velasquez's Spanish-speaking father had to be totally retrained in order to work.
The actor's current project, The Sheep And The Whale, tackles the experience of immigration in a haunting and poetic fashion. Written by Moroccan-Canadian Ahmed Ghazali, the play looks at the troubles that ensue when a Russian ship in the Strait of Gibraltar brings aboard the dead bodies of Moroccan refugees and finds that no country will accept them.
Velasquez plays shipboard passenger Hassan, a Moroccan who has lived in France for several years with his girlfriend, Helene.
"He realizes over the course of the show that he can never feel at home in France," muses the actor. "With his homeland so close, he feels drawn back to where he's comfortable and accepted.
"Hassan is trapped between two worlds, his old life and family in Morocco and his new life with Helene in France. He discovers that despite the move to Europe, he's been in hiding, from himself as well as from his lover."
It's not by chance that director Soheil Parsa, himself an immigrant from Iran, has chosen a 17-member multicultural cast.
"There's something special about playing with such a group," Velasquez says. "A comfort level has developed because we're all different and speak about those differences."
With its combination of lyricism, music, ritual and magic realism, Ghazali's play has an epic feel. Though he looks at large issues such as East versus West and how society defines haves and have-nots, the playwright evokes private, deep-seated emotions in a surprising fashion.
"For me, the show is about the love between Hassan and Helene," adds Velasquez. "Their love has to do with maintaining a comfort level by hiding things from each other. Over the course of the play, the audience sees what happens when that dynamic changes, and whether their bond is strong enough not to be torn apart."