Saturday, April 01, 2006

Play: Life in Wartime

9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo. Seattle Repertory Theatre, through April 15

Ah, the one woman show - another potentially perilous part of the theater experience, but the Rep tends to do it well. Not only I am thinking about Lily Tomlin's The Search for Sign of Intelligent Life in the Universe from a few years back, or Sandra Tsing Loh's Sugar Plum Fairy, a show I dreaded in theory and enjoyed in reality, but also Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates, which is known in the household as "the Shoe Play". I dodged out of it, the Lovely Bride took a friend, and thought it was delightful and I would have enjoyed it (Such that it has become the standard shorthand for male sluggishness to engage - "Well, you never went to the Shoe Play, either").

And there is this - 9 Parts of Desire, which is a nine-character, one-woman show on Iraqi women. The title comes from the old story of how god divided desire into ten parts, and gave nine of those parts to woman. And while the concepts of husbands, lovers, long-distance relationships, and others float through these women's serial narations, this doesn't seem to be about love, but rather about the destruction of a culture and a civilization.

The stories pull no punches as the horrors of the Saddam Hussein's regime and the destruction of the wars (Iran, First Gulf, Second Gulf). These are women from a world rolling backwards, where the evil is rewarded and incautious truth mercilessly punished. They are victimized but do not see themselves as victims. Their world has been shredded into bits. Some have left and feel drawn to return. Some have remained and feel the tug to leave. Doctor, Artist, Intellectual, much-married Bedouin, Street Vendor, Teeny-Bopper, American TV Viewer. All are pulled into the maelstrom.

Actress Nalja Said moves effortlessly from one role to the next in serial style, giving each woman her own presence and style. I connected with the artist, parleying off parts of her soul for survival and advancement under Saddam. The Lovely Bride gelled with both the second-Generation teen watching her uncles' homes be destroyed on CNN and the whiskey-swilling refugee in London, trying to give background to the struggle and explain why she won't go back, this time.

What the play does well is provide a spectrum of women, from smart to foolish, from elite to struggling, and shows it is as impossible to encapsulate the land in nine women in ninety minutes as it is to capture it in a two-minute bit on the evening news. It does have the horror-show of a civilized land destroyed from within and without. It has a nasty frisson to it all, a feeling that yes, with a proper nudge here and bit of finesse there, it can happen here.

In the end, however, the play is a collection of nine individuals talking, what links between them tenuous and late in the play. The Lovely Bride thinks that treating it as a real play with nine actresses would have strengthened it, but I disagree. I think a straight-line narative would have forced the play like a river being channeled to a set goal and a set resolution. What is here is chaos, what these women's world has become, and the end does not resolve neatly. Like a river, it leaves you with muddy water and reflections at the end. and I don't know if I would tidy up the events to fit any of the potential messages in the least.

It was a troubling play, and that seems to be the whole point.

More later,