Review: Sweets and Sorrow in Centaur’s “The Baklawa Recipe”

Pascale Rafie's poignant new play makes it World Premiere on January 26th

Christina Tannous and Natalie Tannous in “The Baklawa Recipe” at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre (Photo: Antoine Saito)

The Centaur is entering the New Year the same way most people do: with family and baked goods. And a good start it is.

The Baklawa Recipe tells the story of four Lebanese-Canadian women who, though separated by sprawling divides of generation and culture, are brought together by the joy of baking and the inexplicable everlasting bonds of sisterhood –– both blood-related and not. Written by Pascale Rafie, translated from French by her half-sister Melissa Bull, and directed by Emma Tibaldo, The Baklawa Recipe captures the experience of first and second generation immigrants in a manner that is both highly theatrical and deeply truthful.

In a thematically relevant turn of events, the playwright and translator are not the only sister-colleagues involved in the show. Sisters Natalie and Christina Tannous star as the appearance-conscious Rita and the volatile Nadia, best friends and avid baklawa makers. They migrate from Lebanon to Canada as bright-eyed youths, and we follow the gradual decline of their spirits as they are weighed down by the cold Canadian winter, and more importantly by the pressures and expectations that come with growing up and being a woman in an ever-changing landscape.

Rita’s and Nadia’s interactions largely consist of phone calls and voicemails; they only converse face to face and in real time when they are baking –– a testament to the tried and true notion that food has a way of bringing people together. Here, baklawas are not merely a tasty dessert or a staple of their culture; they are a constant amidst an otherwise rocky relationship, a common thread that sees the duo through all the most significant moments of their shared lives: weddings, pregnancies, baptisms, first communions, funerals… A moment of peace, where they get to live out a complicity that only exists within the small confines of their kitchen.

Their daughters Naïma and Fanny, played respectively by Eleanor Noble and Anne-Marie Saheb, also have a special relationship, one that carries echoes of their mothers’ bond firmly rooted under the layers of lands escaped and time gone by. Cousins – the awkward middle ground between friend and family – and born around the same time, they voice the gift and the curse that is growing up side by side. In their hectic and reckless teenage years, they grow sick of sharing every milestone and vow to do better – or at least different – than their parents, which proves to be far more difficult than they had anticipated. When they reconnect after years of estrangement, they are inevitably also pulled back towards their roots through the legacy their mothers have passed along in the form of recipes.

The Baklawa Recipe may have one-too-many local references and a somewhat arbitrary and unnatural use of French, but it also has a myriad of Arabic phrases and references to Lebanon which are worked in a lot more seamlessly and add to the authenticity of the piece.  Though it is both Lebanese-specific and Montreal-specific, the play somehow manages to remain universal.

While it will probably garner a deeper appreciation from audience members who are themselves children of immigrants, all will be able to identify with the complex mother-daughter relationships and the multi-layered sisterly bonds the play is built upon. There is both sadness and beauty in the lives Naïma and Fanny have built for themselves independently of their mothers; forceful and definite Canadian identities, hard-earned individuality. Their mothers’ baklawa recipes are pretty much all that remain of their hard-denied roots. Funny how a seemingly small tradition can be strong enough to remind them of everything they are, everything they came from. How comforting to see that a simple dessert can be enough to bring them back.

The “Baklawa Recipe” at Centaur Theatre (Photo: Antoine Saito)

The show also features occasional appearances by a trio of minor characters who quirkily display how competitive and vile women can be towards one another, a reality that ties together many of the questions The Baklawa Recipe raises: Why is it so impossible to stand with our fellow women against a world that tries so hard to bring us down? Does being supportive mean standing by your loved ones even when they make poor life choices, or does it involve dragging them kicking and screaming back onto the right path? How can we heed our mothers’ advice when many of the rules they were faced with no longer apply?

The Baklawa Recipe is a beautiful tribute to the women who shape lives and carry on traditions, one that will tug at your heartstrings and leave you craving both baklawas and a good old-fashioned catching-up with a sister or a friend.

The Centaur Theatre Company presents “The Baklawa Recipe”
When: January 26th to February 18th, 2018
Where: Centaur Theatre, 453 St. François-Xavier, H2Y 2T1
Duration: 1h45 with no intermission
Admission: $28-$51.75
Box Office:

Violette Kay

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