Janice Steinberg’s review!

October 13, 2009

From the San Diego Union Tribune:


Theater review

3 women play 9 who love, desire amid Iraqi war, loss


By Janice Steinberg

2:00 a.m. October 13, 2009


“9 Parts of Desire”

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 1

Where: Mo’olelo at The 10th Avenue Theatre

Tickets: $22-$35

Phone: (619) 342-7395

Online: moolelo.net

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s lyrical production of “9 Parts of Desire” weaves its spell from the moment you enter the 10th Avenue Theatre. Scenic designer David F. Weiner has created a Moorish-arched bazaar in which several dozen metal bowls, gleaming on two low platforms, illuminate the simple beauty in everyday kitchen ware.

In the same way, the nine Iraqi women whose voices are heard in Heather Raffo’s play reveal the poetry in their everyday lives — and the determination to persevere in the midst of war and loss.

Raffo, an American actor-playwright whose father was born in Iraq, initially interviewed women in Iraq in the 1990s and used that material in a short play for the University of San Diego/Old Globe MFA program.

That piece evolved into the one-woman “9 Parts of Desire,” which she debuted in Edinburgh in 2003 and later performed in London and New York, receiving a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Special Commendation and a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Solo Show.

In Mo’olelo’s production, which opened on Saturday at the 10th Avenue Theatre, three actors play the nine roles. Under Janet Hayatshahi’s sensitive direction, the women become one another’s witnesses and allies, sometimes playfully and sometimes tenderly handing off the black abaya whose wearer (or holder) takes center stage.

The play’s title (also used by author Geraldine Brooks for her book about women in the Muslim world) quotes from a seventh-century imam: “God created sexual desire in 10 parts. He gave nine parts to women, one to man.”

Certainly, some of the women — whom Raffo has said she quoted nearly verbatim — express exuberant sexual desire. Layal, the worldly painter who wears the abaya off her shoulders like an evening wrap, declares herself “hungry for (love) every morning like I have never eaten before,” and the chatty Bedouin, Amal, hopes for husband number three.

But love isn’t the only thing these women want. An eight-year-old girl, kept home because of the conflict, yearns for an education. A Basra doctor wants to deliver healthy babies; instead, contaminants released by the war are producing newborns who are horribly deformed. An Iraqi-American woman, seemingly a stand-in for Raffo, says the rosary using the names of all her family members in Iraq.

As the personal inevitably entwines with the politics of war, the stories get grimmer. Umm Ghada offers a tour of the bomb shelter, hit by U.S. bombs in the Gulf War, where her family died. Nanna approaches strangers on the street, trying to sell things “from good family” so that she can eat.

Yet the play ultimately celebrates the women’s life-force and the power of art, in the hands of Hayatshahi and a fine ensemble cast.

Lisel Gorell-Getz gives the show’s standout performance as Layal, daring, brittle and almost successful at hiding her fear behind bravado. Gorell-Getz also plays the doctor and Umm Ghada.

Dré Slaman shifts from the big-eyed liveliness of the young girl, to a Scotch-drinking former Communist living in exile in London, to a professional mourner.

Poignant in her role as Nanna, Frances Anita Rivera on opening night was ardent but a bit over-caffeinated as Amal and the American.

Using three actors has led to a few changes in Raffo’s script, with mixed results. It’s jarring when an actor echoes a line spoken by the featured character. On the other hand, a gripping moment occurs when the American repeats “I love you” like a mantra to keep everyone from harm, and the other women join in.

Among the excellent production team, dialect coach Jan Gist deserves special mention. Rather than speaking generic Iraqi-accented English, each character’s speech is fine-tuned to reflect her education and background. At least to this ear, they sounded convincing — and drew us into the vital stories the women had to tell.



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