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A CurtainUp Feature
Lincoln Center Festival 2002
by David Lipfert and David Lohrey
Ta'Zieh (Hor, Children of Moslem, Imam Hussein) | Pacific Overtures | The Battle of Stalingrad | The Mute Dream
ta'zieh: IRAN'S EPIC THEATERLincoln Center Festival 2002 has achieved what amounts to a cultural coup by inviting a group of Iranian players to premiere three ta'zieh passion plays in America. Theater and Iran might not seem to go together, but this centuries-old tradition is both indigenous and thriving. And ta'zieh is popular in every sense. Typically presented during the first days of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic year, they attract large audiences. Second, the players are almost all non-professionals but steeped in the performing tradition. And the performances this summer at Lincoln Center certainly adhere to both those attributes.
The stories relate to the early days of Islam. Only two generations after its founding, the official leadership had already strayed far from the principles and ideals of the new religion. Corruption and ill living was endorsed from the top, and the main opposition came from Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Hussein. Things came to a head around 680 AD in a barren desert in southern Iraq called Karbala. Hussein and his few followers were massacred, but the duty to oppose errors in religion was established even if it resulted in death. It was a defining moment for Islam, and a victory for orthodoxy now known as Shiism.
Iranian ex-pat Mohammad Ghaffari directs the three-evening series. An all-male cast performs without mikes in a specially-constructed tent in Damrosch Park. From a raised circular platform or on horseback around it, they hold forth in chanted or spoken Persian poetry. ta'zieh has its own visual language, too. Characters are color-coded as to which side of the right/wrong conflict they are on. Green is for the good guys, red the bad ones, and yellow for the undecided. Donning a white mantle means martyrdom is around the corner. A small brass and percussion orchestra covers scene changes and punctuates the speeches. The tent itself is hung with banners and streamers proclaiming Hussein's martyrdom/sainthood.
To its credit, Lincoln Center has not stinted on the information side. Audiences are given detailed plot summaries plus a guide to interpret ta'zieh symbols and conventions. There have been public seminars at Lincoln Center and an all-day scholarly conference at Asia Society to explain the form.
What can these performances say to American audiences? Most viewers going into the tent will not be so well-informed about the background for these dramas. By the end, though, it is unlikely that they will not be moved. Maybe they will agree with Peter Brook that ta'zieh is one of the greatest theatrical forms. At a minimum audiences should come away with an appreciation for a different approach to theater. Hopefully this will whet their appetites for more ta'zieh.
TA'ZIEH: HORThe first installment in the Iranian passion play series in Lincoln Center Festival 2000 relates to a general who changes allegiance from the defenders of evil to the forces of good led by Imam Hussein at Karbala. Leader Ibn Sa'ad orders Hor to capture Imam Hussein before he can reach numerous supporters at Kufa (Iraq). Hussein's brother Abbas intercepts Hor, and leads him to the Imam. Hussein's kindness causes Hor to waver in his resolve to eliminate Imam, Prophet Mohammed's grandson. At army headquarters Ibn Sa'ad agrees with Hor, but Shemr resolves to lead the battle against Hussein. Ever more convinced of Hussein's goodness, Hor asks Hussein to join his side along with his young son. Both new recruits meet their deaths, consoled by Hussein in a brief tableau.
The lone professional actor in this cast is Alaeddin Ghassemi. He uses rhetorical gestures and voice modulation far more than the others, but in the end he is no more convincing than the non-professionals who themselves boast years of experience. ta'zieh depends more on conviction than technique. For the audience, whether Iranian or foreign, the players merely represent their characters rather than embodying them. Their voices are remarkable, though. Ornamented lines that would put many bel canto opera singers to shame come through loud and clear. Ditto for while they are on horseback racing around the central platform and twirling their shiny swords. Iranian voices are generally higher pitched than those in other Middle East countries, and this merely adds to their carrying power in the tent at Damrosch Park.
The performers chant or speak is poetry of the highest order. Although I haven't read the text used in these performances, other texts read during the first ten days of Moharram (the first month of the Islamic year when the historical events occurred) contain apostrophes to the sun, moon and stars with vivid imagery. This of course is the mystic (Sufi) tradition that lies within the Shii school of Islam, the majority current in Iran.
Most striking are the bright costumes. Hor sports a yellow tunic, whose color signifies his detachment from both the forces of good in green and those on the side of evil in red. Another indicator of Hor's moral state is that from the beginning he chants his lines like Hussein and followers rather than speaking the text like those opposed. A helmet with two yellow plumes, a short coat of mail, black boots, mace and shield complete his costume. (The plumes fell off at the show I saw, but the show went on.) The others are variously dressed in solid green (Hussein and company) or red (supporters of Yazid, governor of Damascus and self-appointed leader of the Muslim world). Grooms and servants sport variously patterned and textured robes in other colors.
The ta'zieh of Hor is about making the right decision even if it costs your life. In this production this central point was made so clearly that language is not a barrier. Even with a compliment of performers reduced from typical presentations in Iran (and further reduced by visa complications on the U.S. side), both adults and children more than compensate with clarity and purpose in their performances. Running time is a merciful ninety minutes, quite different from the all-day affairs in Iran.
CHILDREN OF MOSLEMThis middle installment in a trio of ta'zieh Iranian passion plays at Lincoln Center Festival 2002 illustrates pathos in the story of Imam Hussein's martyrdom at Karbala. One of Imam's followers, Moslem, has already been killed. Governor of Damascus Yazid has ordered his army to eliminate potential claims to Muslim leadership from among Hussein's blood relatives and other supporters. Charged with finding and slaughtering Moslem's two male children, Ibrahim and Mohammad is Hares-in red like the other villains of this series. A beneficent jailor, kindly shepherd, and Hares's wife and servant in turn attempt to shield the young victims. Equal parts goon and buffoon, Hares provides levity in his missteps that contrasts with the inevitable death for the two boys.
American audiences are normally slow to switch gears between tragic and comic, but they rose to the occasion in this instance. The player for Hares, Morteza Saffarianrezai, may be the reason. Active in ta'zieh for 65 of his 70 years, he easily projected Hares's comic even farcical personality without becoming a ham in the process. His was a good example of Iranian humor, broad but more reserved than conventional slapstick. After he has run his horse into the ground (thankfully offstage), he trudges home via the track covered with wood shavings that rings the central performance platform. He then manages to spread as much of his evening meal of bread, rice and yogurt on his face as goes down the hatch. (This section is probably a sly commentary on Arab table manners by the habitually fastidious Iranians.) Comedy turns to cruelty when Hares at last stabs the boys, youngest first.
The other players, especially the two children, demonstrate as much conviction as Saffarianrezai. Shepherd Hassan Aliabbasi Jazi uses his potent voice to chant his text in a style simpler than protagonists such as Hussein and Abbas in the other dramas. Jazi is costumed as an Iranian shepherd would have been until recently. The others adopt the standard Islamic historical dress identical to that in numerous Iranian TV and cinema presentations so numerous that extensive sets are perpetually ready to film them. As described in the introduction above, color-coding is a stand-in for moral standing.
Realism combines with symbolism in ta'zieh in a different way than contemporary Western theater. The players' ages roughly correspond to that of their historical characters-children play children while older men are the elders. Specific clothing plus a veil over the face are all that an audience uses to identify a character as female. In Children of Moslem young men in their 20s in this all-male cast take on the female personages but make no attempt to make their voices or movements conform to Western expectations for representing women. Fighting is rather stylized (mostly non-contact flailing in the air) even if the ultimate stabs are more to the point. Animals are the firmest connection to the realistic world. Children boasts a mini-flock of five sheep, in turn curious about and oblivious to the audience as they prance around the ring. One overexcited sheep began to climb the barrier between it and the public, but to everyone's relief then decided contrary.
Ta'zieh plays are meant to recount the historical details of this central Shi'a Muslim narrative but also to instruct. In this case the lessons are directed at children. Even though the shepherd tries to shush them, Ibrahim and Mohammad automatically offer the truth that they are the Moslem's children when Hares questions them. As much as any other character in these dramas, the children know their ultimate fate and willingly submit to it. Each eagerly asks Hares to be the first to become martyred. There is moral for all when the Shepherd extends his hospitality, particularly offering water, even to Hares irrespective of the latter's moral character. Other aspects of this ta'zieh illustrate sayings and traditions well-known to Shi'a Muslims. Hares twists and turns to find a comfortable sleeping position but finally settles for lying on his stomach, exactly the way that Satan is said to sleep.
Pathos, though, is the main theme. The children's explicit onstage deaths (ancient Greeks had a more gingerly approach in Medea) are trumped by another scene that is the most emotionally wrenching. As the two sleep not far from Hares, the ghost of their father (Alaeddin Ghassemi) appears in bloodstained attire. Without awakening them, Moslem places their arms about his neck for a final embrace while offering support for their death trajectory. When the lights go down on the dead children, no epilogue softens the tragic scene.
IMAM HUSSEINSupernatural mixes with the visible world for the final installment of the ta'zieh Iranian passion play series in Lincoln Center Festival 2002. This one shows the final events in the life of the central character, Imam Hussein. Nearly all of his male relatives and followers have been slaughtered, and it is time for him to face the inevitable. Weakened from lack of food and water, the women in Hussein's encampment bewail his impending death and fear their fate once their only remaining defender is gone. Hoping that the enemy will show mercy, Hussein takes his baby to ask for water. Instead the forces in red (signifying evil) shoot an arrow into the child's heart. Angel Gabriel with helper angels and some jinn (invisible creatures made of fire) twice bring water and offer assistance to Hussein. He knows that he must face his destiny alone and sets out to meet Ibn Sa'ad's troops. Initially Hussein makes a valiant stand, but when Gabriel reminds of his mission to become a martyr he discards his sword and shield. He is wounded, stoned and promptly slain. To the vile Shemr goes the dubious honor of beheading Imam per orders. When all have departed, a lion arrives to honor Hussein and two sons with proper burial.
Director Mohammad Ghaffari has made this third part the shortest segment with a running time of just over an hour. Action and dialogue, though, make it the most important. Imam Hussein has a date with destiny and not even angelic intervention can alter his fate predetermined at the time of creation, according to the mystical tradition. It wouldn't seem that there is much to dramatize. Instead alternating between the opposing sides and illustrating the moral dimension through small but significant actions makes for absorbing theater. In ta'zieh sung and spoken text can expand or contract according to each scene's importance. (I won't be the first to note that this flexible use of time is comparable that in Wagner's later operas.) Ghaffari has made Hussein's elegy to his dead child Ali Asgar rather compact for this American production, but there is enough traditional poetry to multiply its length many times.
Passion plays recount historical events but they also instruct. A comic scene involving Hussein calming a lion that is attacking two foreigners (in 19th century uniforms with 20th century shades) could come anywhere in the passion play sequence. Here placement smack in the middle of a string of tragic events is meant to remind viewers of Hussein's compassion for others while he is suffering. The lion returns at the end for a poignant burial ceremony. This scene drives home the lesson that humans can be as high as angels or lower than animals. And, speaking of angels, this all-men cast is perfectly in synch with the Islamic tradition that angels are exclusively male. Non-Iranian accounts of these events tend to ignore Hussein's wife Sharbanou from Persian royalty and concentrate on his sister Zeinab. Her presence links the Iranian viewers directly to Hussein and his cause.
There are a few moments that maybe the fire marshals could live without. Among Gabriel's entourage are two jinn in black sporting flame-belching headpieces and carrying a burning chain. Security must be relieved that the story line in this production cuts off where it does, because the next events would show Zeinab's tent afire, maybe the scariest moment in the complete narrative at least on the viewers' side. At other moments realism is irrelevant or inconvenient. Ibn Sa'ad's aide Harmaleh shoots his arrow at Hussein's baby to land safely in the track around the circular playing platform. This is fine since everyone knows the story line and anyway this is more representation than dramatization. Only horses appear in this ta'zieh, but one is very special to the story. Imam Hussein and his white horse Zoljoshem reputedly had such a strong bond that after Shemr's coup de grace the horse returned to Hussein's camp to effectively announce Hussein's death. That Hassan Nargeskhani Deligani was able to demonstrate this bond between man and horse added to the performance's power.
Most of the Iranian ex-pat community in attendance are pleased that ta'zieh is finally reaching these shores. Some are even seeing it live for the first time. In Iran today it is easier to see these ta'zieh on television than in a live presentation. Performances were even less widespread or periodically banned under the Pahlavi regime that preceded the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Both the Shah and his father Reza who ruled in the 30s and 40s recognized that the strong message regarding unjust monarchs could come back to haunt them. There was discontent among some of the younger Iranian-Americans that ta'zieh shows only the less progressive side of Iranian culture, but their fears place them in the minority if audience commentary and press writeups are any guide. The performances in Damrosch Park tent have been attracting full, enthusiastic houses. Not bad for a U.S. premiere of a previously little-known tradition of religious drama.
PACIFIC OVERTURESWhen a young, talented artist of one culture takes on the work of an accepted master of another, there is bound to be excitement, if not controversy. The New National Theatre of Tokyo under the direction of Amon Miyamoto has created an irresistible sensation with its production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. What could be more fascinating than a Japanese production of an American musical about the American invasion of Japan over one hundred and fifty years ago?
The press has been aflutter with exotic Japanese theatrical terminology since the announcement of this production as a part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. Press releases have promised a production imitative of the great kabuki itself, while reviews have included mysterious references to the use of a hanamichi, the Japanese platform placed in the auditorium like a fashion- show runway. Director Miyamoto has spoken in print about the Japanese concept of ma to capture his sense of the production's use of silence and space. Wow, the perspective viewer must think, an American musical combined with a multi-cultural experience, all for the price of one.
The production, unfortunately, fails to deliver on its promise, delivering instead a highly theatrical diversion of questionable cultural value and nearly incomprehensible cultural lineage. The kabuki it most certainly is not. The stage effects are simply too wild, too undisciplined, too, well, American, to be said to even resemble the all-male Grand Kabuki-za. It strikes this viewer as too extravagant to claim Noh as its inspiration, although there are obvious elements present. Actually, if this theatrical extravaganza is reminiscent of any Japanese tradition, it is that of the Kansai-based Takarazuka, the all-female musical revue showcased in the Brando picture Teahouse of the August Moon, although in this production both male and female actors are employed.
Listening to Sondheim sung by Japanese actors makes one hear, perhaps for the first time, just how lyric-dependent his music is. Without the clever use of language to appreciate, the songs become indistinct and musically rather bland. Weidman's book doesn't help. The audience saved most of their cheers for the sets, quite rightly, for they, unlike the actors, were the only things on stage that were moving. One can't help being moved by the sight of the unfurling of the American flag, but when spectacles of this sort dwarf the human dynamic, there is something wrong. This is in part due to what is lost in translation, but also a problem of Mr. Sondheim's failure to find a human dimension for this great moment in East-West relations. The director's insistence on turning the Japanese into giggling idiots and the Americans into buffoons doesn't help. However true a picture this may be of history, it is hard to care about caricatures.
The real conflict, then, is not to be found between the arriving American and the Japanese, but between a Japanese fisherman Manjiro (Masaki Kosuzu) and his friend Kayama (Shuji Honda), a xenophobic samurai. Here the drama of friendship and loyalty is enacted, both personal and civic. The reversal of roles is persuasive and their increasingly violent conflict has real poignancy. The Japanese actors are effective, able to communicate their anguish, as they fight to maintain their freedom and dignity. Would that there were more of this.
This version of Pacific Overtures may be remembered by many as a great evening in the theatre. The work of Miyamoto and his creative team is awe-inspiring. Everything about this production deserves praise. It is perhaps worth remembering, however, that in the traditional aesthetic hierarchy, spectacle should never be valued above human drama.
THE BATTLE OF STALINGRADA complex choreography of puppets and props in The Battle of Stalingrad gives a distilled take on the human dimension of fiercest battle of World War II. It's a slice of history we often overlook here. Before the allies' advances on Western Europe, the Russians-or Soviets in those days-had begun the reverse the course of the war. Stalingrad was the place in winter 1942-42, but the cost in human suffering was on a scale impossible to describe effectively. Horses suffered, too. Upwards of 10,000 died and accounts describe many maimed ones limping about and climbing over carcasses at the battle's conclusion. Tbilisi Municipal Theatre Studio artistic director Rezo Gabriadze took such images of horses as his inspiration for a look via puppets at this pivotal moment. For presentation at Lincoln Center Festival 2002, Clark Studio Theater has a wall of black curtains punctured by a small playing area. Gabriadze's puppets ranging from 6 inches to three feet are of the rod variety. Human characters have sculpted white heads and a handle on the back with tabs to control mouth movements. Elongated bodies are sometimes further extended with hanging cloth. The rods conceal a mechanism that cleverly turns the puppet hands into tiny clamps to grab objects. Animal puppets, mainly horses, have jointed hanging legs and long, slinky necks and spines. Rounding out the miniature cast are an ant and an angel. Miniature spots hone in on details-and what details! Clothing has the expected meticulousness, but the props are simply amazing. The opening train ride staged on a pair of revolving turntables should give an idea. On and off go a succession of gatehouses, flashing signal towers and bucolic fences with geese to simulate movement. Items are so finely crafted that it is a pity they disappear in an instant. Text, sound effects and well-selected music are on tape. This is just as well, because the five puppeteers have more than enough to keep them busy. Text is in Russian, but English translations appear below the miniature stage. Poetic images are many, but one is particularly memorable. A three-segment airplane of golden wire arcs through the darkness and divides into parts for a striking aerial ballet courtesy a puppeteer trio. The presentation aspects are so absorbing that you risk forgetting there is story being told. Well, a kind of story. From Berlin to the Black Sea to Stalingrad itself, human puppets and their animal surrogates round out the greater historical account. Death and dislocation play havoc with relationships. Gabriadze reserves the most emotional moments for horses. One sad horse pines for his fiancée Natasha. Coming back to life to see her married to someone else only increases his pain. To close the show a mother ant laments she never had chance to teach her little one, now dead, about sugar. Oh yes, and then there is Stalin as will. In case you forgot, he was born in Georgia (with a longer name) but then went on to bigger and better things in Moscow. A German and a Russian general come in and out of focus, too. Nevertheless the battle itself trumps them. To thunderous noise and ominous red light, tray after tray of silver helmets slides across the stage. Once at the end the puppeteers take the trays back to the beginning for another round. Perhaps only film can convey the huge number of troops in this battle so indelibly. There is also plenty of humor, especially the ironic variety. Outré artist Franz Molde holds forth at the Eleventh Finger Café in Berlin amid the comings and goings of lovers and spies. He delights in crossing his elongated legs with a grand sweep. Scented smoke from his incense stick cigarette wafts into the first rows of the audience. Everyone is penniless so a cup of tap water becomes the beverage of choice. Molde's caustic wit gets him ejected but not before he offers choice insults about life and theater. Philosophical lessons in the show are anything but small scale. History can't be stopped nor can loss be eased. The mood is in turn sardonic, playful, violent and reflective. The only constant is the sense of humor-both Gabriadze's and ours. Beside WWII, he is also commenting on the civil war that flared in Georgia shortly after the Soviet breakup. It was as deadly as it was useless, because Russian troops still occupy much of the westernmost sector, just that their presence goes by a different name now. The Battle of Stalingrad has found enthusiastic audiences in Washington and Toronto as well as throughout Europe. Lincoln Center Festival has finally brought it here for New Yorkers to enjoy. This weekend another show, Autumn of My Springtime, concludes the mini-engagement for Rezo Gabriadze and his Tbilisi Municipal Theatre Studio.
THE MUTE DREAMUsing the language of experimental theater, Attila Pessyani spins a tale of oppression and resistance at Clark Studio Theater for Lincoln Center Festival 2002. Inside a stage-sized chicken wire enclosure two bundled-up women enact a ritual of power and submission. This variation is a new one. Every act of violence that Teacher (Fatemeh Naghavi) inflicts on Student (Setareh Pessyani) is matched with one of human kindness, neither exaggerated beyond believability. Caresses follow forced feeding, and tenderness comes after Teacher's chaining Student seated in a Mackintosh chair to a heavy tome on a library table. Although goggles and headphones make Student sense-deprived, she can feel pain and repeatedly screams to prove it.
Every sequence seems to carry opposing meanings. Deprived of sight and hearing, Student can explore other sensory experiences, mostly under Teacher's coercive watch. An onion comes first, then a douse of rose water that signifies heaven. A sand patch at the front gives the two a chance to feel and taste roughness. In quick succession Teacher burns Student's hand with a match and then places a duck (a live one roped to a clamp on the table) in her lap to pet. One thing is certain, neither enjoys her role, and so this is not a conventional relationship of sadomasochism.
Between these segments Student explores the periphery of the cage. A fishbowl with goldfish swimming about provides release from the painful relationship, while a hole in the fence lined with bells provokes abject fear. All the while Director Pessyani in black sits at the side of the stage to provide interludes of shadow play hand games under a convenient spot. A video of the two women throwing gobs of snow (yes, there is snow in Iran) at each other churns on the back wall. A taped score ranging from Iranian and Western classical music to hard and soft rock seems deliberately chosen to jar the proceedings. Partial lighting and spots add mystery to the action.
Any dialogue in this wordless piece would be superfluous because the interplay is so full of content. When Teacher dons a Pulchinella beaked mask it is perfectly clear she wants Student to transfer her affection for the duck to a new beak. Once Teacher's authority bubble has burst, the two are on a more equal status. Now acting alike, they both stab themselves in the groin. Now (if it hasn't started already) the dream sequence begins. Student promptly takes the upper hand, definitively kills Teacher and then resumes her investigation of the cave. This time when she reaches the hole, she apprehensively steps through. Her fear vanishes as she lifts her goggles for the first time.
Cast names are as arbitrary as the wire cage litter embellished with modern detritus. This could be a mother/daughter duo or Teacher's camouflage pants might imply a military theme of torturer and victim. Just as Pessyani resists easy characterization and we likewise must avoid facile interpretation. It would be all too easy to make a direct analogy with the current situation in Iran. The author's point is much broader. He equates oppression and loss of freedom with stifled senses while simultaneously affirming human adaptability to restrictive conditions. Student demonstrates first of all patience while not denying pain, but creativity as in thinking outside the box is what wins freedom. Whether we can only do this in our dreams Pessyani doesn't let on.
A small but tantalizing group of photos by Fataneh Dadkokh hung outside Clark Studio show some other productions of Pessyani's Theatre Bazi (Play Theater), all at Tehran's major performance venue, the multi-stage Ta'atr-e-Shar.
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