Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rumi with a view

Imprisoned in history in The Persian Quarter.  Photos: Megan Moore

There's a lot wrong with Kathleen Cahill's The Persian Quarter (at the Merrimack Rep through October 9).  Its structure is unwieldy, and it doesn't always have a forceful dramatic engine; and sometimes its timeline shifts simply so some political point or other can be made (and then, alas, too quickly dropped).  It also never really integrates its action with the philosophy of the mystic poet Rumi, which it often references. It even closes with a cloying piece of sentimental uplift.

So why did I like it so much?  Why did its emotional resonances linger for so long?  I've been wondering that for a day or two now.  Perhaps because Cahill's central project - the treatment of the Middle Eastern "character" as, indeed, a "character" that can be understood by the West - is a pressing and unfinished business of our current theatre.  And perhaps for the same reason I forgive many of the masterpieces of our culture for their own all-too-apparent flaws; playwriting is a patchwork game, even for the greats - and when a play reaches something deep and moving, you forgive it the wayward path it took to get there.

Surprisingly. The Persian Quarter is, indeed, deep and moving at its best; and when I hear the tremble of genuine tragedy echoing beneath a text, I always listen, and try to puzzle it out.  Plus the playwright's aims are worthy ones: to limn the parallel wounds that echo through the recent history of two cultures and two countries, both with much wrong and some right on their respective sides, that have been locked in a Cold-War-style battle for the past three decades.  

The countries, of course, are our own United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A long time ago, a famous poet (but not Rumi) noted that those to whom evil are done, do evil in return, and such an evil is the thematic starting point of The Persian Quarter.  It opens with two Americans flirting poolside (below) in the American quarter of Tehran during the Carter years.  They seem cockily indifferent to their nation's checkered involvement with their hosts, and imagine - as most Americans do even now - that they are democratic masters of the universe, free to play spy in their bathing suits and toy with other nations' destinies, indemnified by American power from any consequences of their actions.  Indeed, one of them, Mike (Jason Kolotouros) is actually a descendant of the diplomat who maneuvered the Shah into power a generation earlier.

Swimming toward danger - Beth Wittig and Jason Kolotouros.
History, of course, has other ideas; and the wound that has been festering since that notorious coup snaps shut on Cahill's characters like a fated trap: soon they have both been taken prisoner in the American embassy.  And they'll spend 444 days in captivity there before, in effect, being ransomed in a deal with the incoming Reagan administration.

At this juncture in her story, however, Cahill's play suddenly shifts into a second narrative, and a new set of themes.  She abandons her male lead (and never successfully re-integrates him into the play) to ponder a new duo, this time female - one of her Americans, Emily (Beth Wittig), and her captor/attendant, Shirin (Christina Pumariega), an articulate Iranian woman dressed in the traditional hijab.  At once the playwright seems less interested in the causes of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran than in its effects: both Emily and Shirin imagine themselves idealists, perhaps even zealots; yet their political positions are steeped in unknowing irony, and neither seems aware of how false or secret histories have shaped her own assumptions and prejudices.  As the long scene draws near its end, in fact, we slowly realize that Shirin's deepest wish is that Emily understand why she has been imprisoned - but of course that is the last thing Emily wants to do.

Most interestingly of all, Cahill begins to make a case for the co-existence of Islamic belief and a kind of feminism.  Shirin is hardly a crushed violet, and she feels strongly that the hijab - along with its general connotations of modesty and privacy - empowers her, as it frees her in her dealings with men from the exploitation of her sex.  Intriguingly, we learn that Emily herself was once a nun - and nuns, of course, long wore the Catholic version of the hijab, and for something like the same reasons.

Cahill doesn't force (or even directly state) the irony of this counterpoint, however; nor do the characters pick up on their own hidden similarities.  Which may be where the Sufi poet Rumi comes in - in various incarnations (all played by Barzin Akhavan), he drifts through the entire play.  And central to Rumi's vision was the notion that we have all been cleft from our unity with the universe, and that alienation is the very basis of the human condition; we must always search to reconnect with the divine, and with each other.  Cahill's mission, then, seems to be to render Rumi's vision through the prism of U.S.-Iranian relations, and the various sets of thematic doubles and twins she has sprinkled throughout her play.

But this is a tall  order, surely, particularly for a fledgling playwright; for dramatizing the pain of disconnection - especially unconscious disconnection - is a tricky business; hence Cahill's awkward structure, and scenes that spin, rather like a whirling Sufi dancer, around the wounds of history without ever actually revealing them.  She even takes her sense of historical alienation through a second generation, when the daughters of Emily and Shirin (again, Wittig and Pumariega) connect by chance in the present day.

If all this sounds like a lot of poetic theory without much dramatic drive, well, at times that's a problem with The Persian Quarter.  But Cahill has been blessed with a miraculous cast up at Merrimack Rep; Beth Wittig and Christina Pumariega are both luminously compelling as the two sets of women at the center of the playwright's design, and Jason Kolotouros is astonishingly nimble as their multi-foliate male foil.  Only Barzin Akhavan can't quite triumph over the heavy symbolism of his wandering-Rumi persona; but this is probably because in the end, Cahill can think of little for him to actually do.  Pumariega is wonderful throughout, but Wittig deserves special mention, I think, if only because the daughter she plays in Act II is so convincingly derived from the mother she plays in Act I; a startling feat of acting right there.  None of these great performances would be possible, however, without consummately subtle direction from Kyle Fabel; the production also boasts an evocative set from Campbell Baird.

Still, in the end I felt that playwright Cahill has perhaps bitten off a bit more than she can chew. But I also know true talent and true seriousness when I see it; at times The Persian Quarter is frustrating, but at other times a mysterious sense of the tragic rises unexpectedly from its dialogue and strikes you to the heart. Which is why I'm convinced Ms. Cahill is a talent to watch, and why I hope to be seeing all of these actors on the Merrimack stage again, sometime quite soon.

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