Sunday, September 21, 2003


I’m not a regular movie-goer. The joke is that if its in color, I have probably not seen it. The fact that another identical version of the movie will be on later in the day, or tomorrow, or on cable, or available on VHS makes it easy to push them off for a later day. I am also noted for taping things and never watching them – time shifting to oblivion.

Kate and I, however, are regular theatre-goers – we have a subscription to the Seattle Rep and this year took a flex-pass with INTIMAN. Theatre is different; in particular in the way we look at the viewing experience.

Theatre represents commitment. It is more event than activity. You are going to a particular rendezvous with a large number of like-minded individuals to watch a singular performance that will be similar but not identical to other performances. It carries with it the instantaneous, the fresh, and the irreproducible. Plays are hand-crafted and personalized. Plays are a dinner party.

Theatre is also adventurous, in that with a subscription you are committing to plays, including a number that you might never see on the spur of the moment. You commit, you get the tickets, you really should show. Innate politeness to the practitioners has gotten me to plays that I would never have considered otherwise For example, Sugar Plum Fairy – excellent, excellent play which, broken down into its basic concept (one-woman-show about her Christmas experiences as a young ballerina) would have sent me fleeing, were it a movie.

Not all plays will be reviewed, only if I feel I have something to say – a recommendation, a warning, an insight, or occaisionally, a lack of insight.

Play: Death By Afghanistan

Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner, Directed by Bartlett Sher, September 12-October 11, INTIMAN Theatre

That all being said, Tony Kushner is not for the faint of heart or slow of mind. He’s a black diamond ski trail of concepts, a type 5 of white-water writing, a New York Marathon of playwriting. His language is large, lyrical and elliptical, looping back on itself, and his plots try to link the grand scheme of things with the personal. He’s also wordy beyond compare. Were he to write limericks, he would end up with sonnets. Nothing is easy or clear, and his most well-known play Angels in America, had to be broken into two separate evenings (and HBO is apparently picking it up for a 6-hour miniseries). His writing ability, plus and minus, is on full display in Homebody/Kabul.

The play begins with an extended one-woman monologue – The Homebody. Overly educated, thesaurus-speaking, deeply medicated and non-adventurous, she is about to launch on a grand adventure sparked by an outdated travel book and the need to buy hats for a party, a grand adventure that leads to Kabul, in Afghanistan, in the wake of the initial American attacks in 1998. The monolog was originally written as a stand-alone, a holds its own well – indeed, it is an actor’s dream and challenge, filled with obscure words and turns of phrase, engaging conversation (though the Homebody, of course, does all the talking), and at the heart of it deep passion. The actress taking the role was an understudy (I wish I had her name – this is one of the joys of theatre) and was bright and dotty and frightening and excellent.

The Homebody provides a number of clues of what is to happen and why, in fact a plethora of hints to the future. She exits the stage and leaves a hole in the rest of the proceedings. Indeed, the rest of the play is about the hole she leaves, and the people she pulls in after her.

The Kabul section picks up a short time later. The Homebody has gone to Afghanistan and has been slain. Indeed, the opening of the sequence is the graphic coroner’s report on her attack and death. But no body can be produced – it has been lost, which creates the question of if she is really dead or has been transformed into an Afghani woman, shrouded by the Taliban beneath a burkha. The remainder of the play is the attempts of husband and daughter to find out. They in turn are transformed by the search.

But nothing is easy in the play, and it takes a great deal of time to reveal that nothing is easy – 3 1/2 hours, plus intermissions. And at the close of it nothing is quite resolved, nothing is absolutely known. Several of the characters have entered Shroedinger’s Box, and are maybe-alive, maybe-dead. Which is part of the point. And I say part because even the morning after I am not entirely sure where we are.

I think, within the play, Afghanistan is gingerbread, decoration, and etcetera. Yes, it is a draw, but for the basic concept and question, the Homebody could have disappeared in Nam or the Soviet Union or Detroit and the play’s basic message would hold up. This is not about Afghanistan, no more than Angels in America is about angels. Given a choice, I am going to choose the smaller picture as the point, not the larger one.

The acting was excellent. Homebody was a great presence, as she needs to be to hold up the rest of the play. Lawrence Ballard, who is a Rep/INTIMAN regular, held his own as the father whose façade breaks and who spills into his own depths in the wake of becoming unmarried. Kristen Flanders was a finely-build edge as the daughter, but her own beautiful singing voice belies her chain-smoking character. And Jacqueline Antaramian (I'm pulling from the program, now) was perfect at the Homebody’s doppelganger – Pashtun, former librarian, and supposedly mad.

This is a rough play, hand made and jagged. The pacing is odd, and the act breaks seem placed more out of actor/observer endurance as opposed to resolving action. The play's characters are realistic in that they are a mass of contradictions, and as such hard to get a grip on one way or the other. Indeed, the characters, and the play itself, actively fight against your acceptance and understanding. Kushner does engage in broad strokes in one area – all the white westerners are substance abusers to some degree, underscoring his idea of old empires “succumbing to luxury.” Beyond that, its a journey that you pull out that which you care to, and like a trip through a foriegn country, it remains unaffected by your decision. It’s a marathon of a play – long, deep, and often frustrating.

More later