Freedom, peace, and “9 (other) Parts of Desire” at Krannert

Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then He gave nine parts to women and one to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness…

To open their stage season, the UIUC department of theatre has begun with Heather Raffo’s award-winning production if 9 Parts of Desire. Original created as a one-women show, Raffo came to UIUC this fall to redevelop the work as a six-person vision. The work was also inspired by a trip Raffo made to the Saddam Art Centre in Baghdad in the late 1990s. There she saw only billboard sized portraits of Saddam Hussein. In a back room, however, she saw a painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. She took a photo of the painting, returned to America and devised a way of replicating the painting into a play. A decade later she completed the play, which features monologues by nine highly distinct Iraqi women, initially all played by herself.  [thesis]

One of the things this theatre department does best is stage and environment design. (I’m looking forward to seeing what they do for Shakespeare’s The Tempest later this month.) Here the black box “studio” spaced was arranged for theatre-in-the-round. At the center were three major components. Low-rising rough-hewn rock faces gave way to interstitial periods of plateau. On those smooth spaces we partially faded mosaic patterns in vibrant colors. A central sloping ravine to the floor emulated a riverbed. The six women each aurally recomposed this element in each vignette. For the doctor it was a hall of gurneys strewn with feces. For the painter, it was the prospect out of her sister’s window. For the American, an Iraqi child, and the Ex-Pat it was a ledge on which the television—the focal point of their attention—perched. Hanging from the ceiling were pieces of strewn rock and concrete, arranged to emulate the whole a drilling bomb left in a bomb-shelter roof. The presence of American-hewn carnage literally hung over the entire production. The plasticity of such design reinforced the sense that Americans and Iraqis are struggling still to “recreate” Iraq in the wake of Saddam, but that new-made home has yet to stabilize and take shape.

Martasia Jones (Amal) as a sweet mother and lover trying to find a balance between peace and freedom (Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette).

As a training theatre, however, overall the production produced an emotional flatness. While there were especially strong technical moments, the production hits a fever pitch too soon. About a third of the way in we are taken to the extremes of misery and love that is unsustainable. As primarily undergraduates these ladies did some truly remarkable work. It was in the characterization of Amal by Martasia Jones that I forgot I was watching someone work at acting. Her performance reminded of the salon tenor that I think Raffo is aiming for: that we are part of a conversation with women from a culture across the world but the subject matter is anything but alien. The eye contact with the audience by all the members of the ensemble was especially intense. Jones has a knack for knowing precisely how long to hold a silence after posing a question to her audience, waiting to a point of natural pause just as it begins to wander into the realm of discomfort. She was certainly able to gain the most audience engagement than any of the others in last night’s performance. At one point in her monologue about being fat, she hands a bag of chips to a girl in the audience. As a young man tapped her shoulder to get a chip, Jones broke with the script to offer a second of encouragement. Later, after revealing a surprising bit of personal information, an elderly woman on the far side of the room couldn’t help but cry out “Why‽” Its exciting to see a young woman like Jones sitting on the cusp between technicality and proficiency, that place where skill is starting to become second-nature and it pays off in changing the temperature of the room.

And it had been a rather cold Thursday- night audience of octogenarians and theatre-appreciation students completing attendance requirements. I think this and the over ally emotional flatness of the production may have in part been a byproduct of the initial one-woman construction. With one organizing voice taking on different postures the text and its affective tenor could have been more easily paced and managed. At first I was struck by what seemed fairly elementary dramatic construction before I realized it had been reframed. None of our actors speak to one another, they are always half (or fully) speaking to us. The diegesis—the world of the play—is constantly crumbling at our fingertips. What does work in this partitioned version in the use of Layall, the imagined painter and initial inspiration for the project, as the central thread or motif holding the story together. These are primarily vignettes, mediations around a decade in time, but Layall demonstrates some development over time. Hernandez is spiky and sultry as Layall. As a woman herself she seems very comfortable in her own skin, someone I can believe is “good at being naked,” as she says. She is also the darkest figure in this story, cooperating with Saddam’s regime in order to produce art. But even her celebration of the female figure under the thumb of Saddam, Hernandez’s Layall cracks under trauma and is subjected to a violent death. While for our other characters we feel pity for innocent victims, Layall is anything but innocent and yet seems perhaps more deserving of our empathy.

Tess Hernandez (Layall) as the feisty artist who celebrates the female body (Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette).

In many ways this staging of 9 Parts of Desire reminded me thematically of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The subject is obviously the same: the trauma Iraq has and is experiencing and the difficulty in imagining any kind of liberated future for this culture in the heart of Persia. The argument that both plays are making is also similar. The Iraqis have become our kin, they are our cousins and our shame that we constantly carry as Americans. Like a child that has breastfed for more than a week from a woman other than its mother (as one story in the play goes), Iraqis are kin to us by experience. But 9 Parts of Desire casts this yoking of American and Iraqi culture in terms of cognitive dissonance. Each character attempts to find a balance between personal freedom and peace, and yet each seems to come to the conclusion that freedom and peace cannot co-exist but necessitate one another. So while this production may have come up a bit emotionally flat, it reminds us of how much there is yet to say and feel about the war of this generation.

This “Bengal Tiger” deserves more attention

Now that the first flush of summer has past, I am taking a break from the normal Shakespearean fare here at Bite Thumbnails in order to review some contemporary theatre. This is a piece of a series of posts reviewing Tony-nominated productions I was fortunate to see on a recent trip to New York City, including Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, War Horse, Arcadia, and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Ravij Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a bit of a gamble for producers in many respects. They bet on a youthful but Pulitzer-caliber playwright and a greenish cast led by an old pro taking up an emotionally difficult conceit all in a visually dynamic space. The musings of an ornery tiger in a Mideast zoo may seem like games of farce at first, but after the opening tableaux you are confronted with the reality of war in the age of the iPod. This full-length drama is definitely of a piece with Joseph’s other two shorter works, Gruesome Playground Injuries and Animals Out Of Paper, recently collected in print. They are intensely visual even on the page: the first is charted by actual first charted by wounds and self-wounding, while the second obsesses over the mechanics of large origami. Similarly, in Bengal Tiger the vehicle for social comment is topiary in the desert.

While the essential conceit of Bengal Tiger seems simple enough–an existential ghost of a zoo tiger wanders war-torn streets–it belies a visual complexity that reportedly cost its producers $3 million. The Richard Rogers Theatre is a classic Broadway performance space: ornate, intimate, and tightly reigned under that proscenium archway. Yet, Derek McLane’s piecemeal layering of large set elements in contrast to the crouched smallness of Williams and the American soldiers provides a sense of space to breathe. You can almost feel the frayed bits of street being pulled apart by the tension at hand. Most striking are the large, burnt topiary animals that provide a sense of otherworldliness not only by virtue of being a plant purposely placed center stage, but also by the absurdity of being flora carved into fauna. At times the Marine interpreter’s office co-exists with the topiary pieces in an effect that conveys a pleasurable juxtaposition of work-a-day grit and decaying nature.

This heady juxtaposition carries into the casting of Moises Kaufman’s second direction Bengal Tiger as well. It is no secret that the run is inexorably linked to it’s tiger, Robin Williams. (The play opened in March and will close in July.) While Williams and his impressive beard were allowed to present at last night’s Tony Awards, many were surprised that this role did not manufacture a nomination for the comedic actor. Winner of both Oscars and Emmys, Williams may have been indeed looking for that triple crown. The role is perfect for him: the tenor and rhythm of the tiger’s confessional-cum-cynical monologues have bite, bitterness, and farce. His delivery is effortless, and you could be forgiven for thinking some of it may have been his own improvisations rather than the script. But perhaps the producers banked too hard on Williams’ brand (his name is the largest thing on the show poster), and having seen him live twice on comedy tours, he seemed to be falling on old tricks of manic disdain and ventriloquizing multiple personalities–an effect that sometimes feels fractured rather than a piece with a coherent performance. Perhaps the role is too perfect? Perhaps the weight of fame hindered rather than helped this time?

Whatever the case maybe for Williams, his performance was everything I hoped for and was put in relief by the heartbreak and hopelessness of Musa (Arian Moayed). A newcomer to the Broadway, Moayed plays the Iraqi interpreter working for the American Marines but who is really an artist and responsible for the topiary. While the play gives a lot of voice to the two American soldiers struggling with PTSD and disability, the crux of the work lies in the relationship between tyranny and civilization. Musa can only be a gardener in a desert (an oxymoron in itself) when employed by the sons of Saddam Hussein, who are the only people with the resources to bring enough water to foster topiary. It is through Musa that we are brought to consider the nature of tyranny not only as we perceive it in the Middle East, but also our own fears of ‘big government’ at home. (Moayed studied at Indian University and was part of a cohort of Midwesterners that were recognized this year at the Tony’s; Anna D. Shapiro from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre also received a nomination, and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre was awarded the for Best Regional Theatre). Moayed, I feel, deserved his Tony nomination, even if no one was surprised that Mark Rylance ran away with it.

It is this voicing of extremes in design and performance that provides Bengal Tiger with a sense of continuity amidst that sometimes rambling epistemology. In terms of the play’s social justice topicality, the theatre has been experimenting for some time with how we should feel about HIV/AIDS (read: Rent, Angels in America, The Normal Heart) but not about the modern war effort. One might argue, however, that the recent Oscar wins by The Hurt Locker suggest we are moving in that direction. This year, both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards seemed to hold some marked disdain for “thinking” plays in the service of more comfortable topics; Jerusalem, Arcadia, and Bengal Tiger were all vastly under-represented. First world problems have taken the spotlight in recent years in terms of new drama with few exceptions. In contrast, Bengal Tiger mulls over that very uncomfortable place where the tragedy of the first and third worlds collide. It is this discomfort that, to me at the least, often signals a kind of depth and emotional precision–honing in on tender ground that requires exploring (not unlike Rent) and the voters were not quite ready to admit.