Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rumi for two

Listen to the cry of the reed, how it complains,
how it sings of separation:
"Ever since they tore me from my home,
My laments have moved men and women to tears.
I burst my breast, venting my sighs,
All to express the depth of my yearning."

The above lines (roughly) open the Masnavi I Ma'navi, or "Spiritual Couplets," of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, better known in the U.S. as simply "Rumi" (that's his tomb, above), and give an immediate sense of the compact, lyrical pathos of the great Sufi poet's work. They also (obviously) serve as the titular inspiration for Sinan Ünel’s The Cry of the Reed, now at the BCA's Wimberley Theatre through May 3. Indeed, Ünel was mulling a play based on Rumi's life before reports of the kidnapping of two journalists in Iraq gave him the idea of exploring the poet's philosophy instead, via the clash of cultures in the war-torn Middle East.

And the resulting play is, indeed, all about dislocation and dualism: it takes place in two countries and across two cultures, and two "scenes" often play simultaneously in the same space, with two protagonists in each (on one side, the two journalists are held captive; on the other, one journalist's lover and her mother desperately try to locate her). Even minor characters tend to bifurcate - the chief kidnapper is replaced by his brother, played by the same actor, and the comic relief in one half of the play has a much darker mirror in the other. Ünel has clearly attempted to physicalize, on stage, the central insight of Rumi: that we have been cleaved from God - or at least from spiritual unity - and that we long for re-unification. (A sense of this mystical integration is the central goal of the sema dance, the trancelike whirling of the dervishes that closes the play.)

The trouble is that Ünel may have developed a striking schema for Rumi's metaphysic, but he hasn't developed dramatic arcs (he needs two, of course) to explore it; nor has he developed plots that illuminate the ironic corollary to his main theme: that the religious fanatic can wander just as far from God as the atheist. Instead, the playwright has sketched half of his drama as a conventional thriller (the kidnapped girl - will she survive???) and the other as a sweetly pretentious "play of ideas" which trades in pontifical bon mots like "You're a lover of life - that's the foundation of faith." Uh-huh. Wow, that's like so deep.

Sean Dugan and Cigdem Onat in The Cry of the Reed.

Which in a nutshell is the problem with translating Rumi into drama - what reads as gnomic wisdom on the page can sound like outtakes from Yoda on the stage. Luckily, the Huntington has fielded a strong cast which can (almost) sell Ünel's deep thoughts; we never groan at the lines, we just slowly become aware the playwright is never moving past exposition into development. Forget about actual action: even the debate between secular and spiritual never really gets started - we can feel it as the premise of what's going on, but no one ever gets under anyone else's skin, or seems on the verge of changing his or her mind. The progress toward unification, which in the end must be the plot, never begins - instead we only get a poignant phone call, between the kidnapped journalist and her mother (now herself a Sufi mystic), which essentially goes nowhere.

Still, even though Cry of the Reed eventually falls flat, I'm more sympathetic toward it than I am toward synthetic "successes" like The Clean House - Ünel is trying to write a real play, about a challenging, elusive theme that's both ancient and timely. The sheer exoticism of its locales and cultural background make it refreshingly intriguing, and it sports a superb set from Eugene Lee (a bombed-out interior built entirely of doors) which perhaps conveys the play's premise better than Ünel does himself. There is also a performance of alluring poise from Cigdem Onat as the kidnapped journalist's mother (the role was reportedly written for her), as well as solid turns from Lisa Birnbaum and Darren Pettie as the journalists, Rafi Silver as a romantic jailer, and Amir Arison as a too-broadly-written (but still sharply performed) whirling wannabe.

The trouble is that it's hard to fight the feeling that to do Rumi justice, Ünel will have to rip out most of his scenes and start over, and that the dramatic structure he requires may be too radical for the Huntington's development process (the products of which tend to move toward a certain Broadway-bound mode). He's built himself a brilliant but empty frame - rather like Lee's brilliant, empty set. Now he has to furnish it.


  1. I liked it, a lot. Refreshing to go to a play with an actual philosophical viewpoint. Great to see a play about Sufi mysticism. I'd have liked more of that.

    I had serious problems with the performances of both Segdi and Philip. Neither one looked as if they were in fear of their lives, and Segdi at one point jumped up and down shaking her hands as if she were having a temper tantrum. Hunh? Philip made his unlikable character even more so.

    I had a problem with the director's choice (I guess) to have violence on stage instead of off-stage -- it was obviously fake (how could it not be?) it became impossible to think these people were in danger.

    Liked the dervishes at the end. Thought Ayla a very interesting character -- didn't quite get what had happened to her son, or her daughter really -- the daughter was such a dunce by comparison.

    But a very worthy play undone by poor directorial choices.

  2. I saw it with two theatre friends and we thought more of it than the more dismissive reviewers did. Even though a long-standing pinko, a number of the political plays I've read the last couple of years are so agenda-laden that I thought Unel's work was a real attempt to move beyond it.