‘English’ at the Goodman speaks eloquently about language and identity

Pej Vahdat, Sahar Bibiyan and Roxanna Hopen Radja in “English” at Goodman Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Highly recommended

When you cannot adequately express yourself with the nuance and clarity of a native speaker, people do not realize that you are actually smart, funny, and kind. Instead, they only hear your imperfect pronunciation and limited vocabulary. You may be assumed to be inferior with little or nothing to offer.

Whether this is one hundred percent true or not, these are some of the fears that plague four adult students and their teacher studying for an English language proficiency exam in Iran.

Witty, insightful, cleverly written and produced, “English” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Hamid Dehghani and performed brilliantly at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Roya (Sahar Bibiyan) is a youngish grandmother whose son is living in Canada. He wants her to be able to speak English with her granddaughter before she can rejoin the family.

Elam (Nikki Massoud) is a medical student whose insecurity about how people might perceive her heavy accented speech is stifling her progress.

Goli (Shadee Vossoughi) at eighteen is the youngest in the class, basically taking the whole experience in stride and doing her best to achieve her dream of passing the English exam that might be her ticket to a temporary work permit (green card) in America.

Instructor, Marjan (Roxanna Hope Radja) who had spent nine years living in Manchester, England, fears she is losing her proficiency advantage since returning to Iran. She spends much of her time leading the class through amusing word games while insisting that students speak only in English when in class and not lapse into Farsi when frustrated.

Omid (Pej Vahdat), the only male in the class, is the most proficient speaker. He draws ire from Elam and added attention from Marjan who is happy to have someone to speak with.

Pej Vahdat (Omid), left, and Iranian teacher Roxanna Hope Radja, (Marjan) in Goodman Theatre’s “English” by Sanaz Toossi. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

The set design by Courtney O’Neill immediately supports the voyeuristic experience, with the audience literally providing the third wall of the classroom as though we are peeking through a one-way glass. The window on the back wall provides a tantalizing glimpse of the outside world.

We all likely have some experience with immigrants who have learned English as a second language. Most of us have immense respect for their accomplishment and abilities.

Toosi takes this one step further by bringing us into the inner thinking of the members of this class. The show helps us to not only experience the frustrating process of learning a new language but also asks us to consider that language is not simply a matter of exchanging one word for another because your mother tongue is deeply related to your culture, personal identity and sense of self.

Feeling like you are not fully capable of expressing your deepest thoughts and emotions with utmost clarity is like navigating the world with one hand tied behind your back. Additionally, it may make some people feel as if they are rejecting their culture while others who achieve the elusive goal of total proficiency might feel a euphoric sense of accomplishment and pride at being able to straddle two worlds, indeed two ways of thinking.

Details: “English” is at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL through June 16, 2024. Runtime is about 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit goodmantheatre.org or call the box office (312) 443-3800 (noon to 5 PM).

Reviewer: Reno Lovison is a Chicago video marketing professional and volunteer ESL tutor.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago


Hell in a Handbag parody gives ‘Bad Seed’ a Drag vibe


L-R, David Cerda, Kristopher Bottrall and Ed Jones in Hell in a Handbag Productions’ world premiere parody The Drag Seed. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)
L-R, David Cerda, Kristopher Bottrall and Ed Jones in Hell in a Handbag Productions’ world premiere parody The Drag Seed. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)


4 stars

David Cerda has done it once again. The gifted performer and prolific playwright mines every ounce of humor from his  LGBTQ parodies of well-known TV and film classics like “The Golden Girls” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

This time around, Chicago’s Countess of Camp has loosely adapted “The Bad Seed,” that famous, b & w psychological horror-thriller film from the 1950’s about a seemingly perfect little girl who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to get what she wants.

In Cerda’s gender-bending, mannered melodrama, the perfect little girl has been changed into Carson, the perfect little boy. This child, however, likes to wear outlandish wigs and dress in girl’s clothing. And, since it’s 2019, Carson also prefers to use non-binary pronouns (they, their, them).

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Theater critic reviews own acts


Brendon Coyle in the Donmar Warehouse production of St. Nicholas. (Photo by Helen Maybanks
Brendon Coyle in the Donmar Warehouse production of St. Nicholas. (Photo by Helen Maybanks

3 stars

“…Power… I was a theater critic…,” says Brendan Coyle in “St. Nicholas.” The show, a one-person play by Conor McPherson is at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre fresh from its success at London’s popular Dormar Warehouse.

An Olivier Award winning actor from McPherson’s “The Weir,” Coyle drew laughter from Goodman’s opening night crowd of theater critics and patrons almost every time he said the word “critic.”

However, given that McPheron’s portrait of a critic contains more than a few resemblances to Oscar Wilde’s philosophical and Gothic  “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” it arguably would be better to ask a Goodman Theater patron how that person liked or felt about the play.

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A pleasant adventure ‘Into the Woods’


Cast of Into the Woods at Music Works. (Brett Beiner photo)
Cast of Into the Woods at Music Theater Works. (Brett Beiner photo)

4 stars

Music Theater Works in Evanston has put together a visually stunning production of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical mashup, “Into the Woods.”

The opening tableau is like the first page of a richly illustrated children’s picture book that literally sets the stage for the primary characters.

Stage right is Cinderella (Kelly Britt) tending to the fire; center stage is the Baker (Daniel Tatar) and his wife (Alexis Armstrong) in their kitchen; and stage left is Jack (Christopher Ratliff) of beanstalk fame with his mother (Anne Marie Lewis) and cow Milky White (Milky White).

Behind the vignettes are the slightly ominous birch tree “woods” accented against a deep blue twilight sky hung with the words “Once Upon a Time.” But of course, this is not your child’s version of the stories presented.

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Hemingway takes over Goodman stage via Stacy Keach

Stacy Keach is Ernest Hemingway in the world premiere of Pamplona at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Lauren Photo)
Stacy Keach is Ernest Hemingway in the world premiere of Pamplona at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Lauren Photo)


Stacy Keach is the consummate actor who totally wraps himself within the character he portrays so that audiences forget who the actor is and just see the character. Yes, actors are supposed to do that but so often when an actor portrays a celebrity you see an actor portraying a celebrity. In Pamplona at the Goodman Theatre you don’t see Keach, you see Ernest Hemingway.

The author is struggling with the words he wants to use to convey the feelings of the matador he is writing about for a Life Magazine article. But while trying to find  the right phrase, he relives moments in his life.

Projections of the “running of the bulls and the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald flash across the walls of his hotel in Pamplona, Spain. You meet his first love, his wives, his parents through snapshots of people who influenced him and moved in and out of his life.

You learn a bit about what led to “The Sun Also Rises,” The Old Man and the Sea,” Farewell to Arms,” how he hated his mother and his regrets over how he treated his wives and his father.

Certainly, it is difficult to portray the life of “Papa” Hemingway in 90 minutes but by the time Stacy Keach takes his bow you feel you and this author from Oak Park, IL have become better acquainted.

There is a PS to this production. It was on the Goodman schedule more than a year ago and had an excellent preview. But during the official opening night, it became obvious to those of us in the audience that Keach was ill. Director Robert Falls stopped the performance. It turned out that Keach was suffering a minor heart attack. Following bypass surgery and a recovery period, Keach returned to his TV work and has now returned to continue Pamplona. Hemingway would have understood that kind of determination.

DETAILS: “Pamplona” by Jim McGrath and directed by Robert Falls is in Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago,  through Aug. 19, 2018. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 443-3800 or visit Goodman Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago