Anne Marie Welsh’s review!

October 14, 2009

From the North County Times:

THEATER REVIEW: Voices of Iraqi women ring out in well-staged ‘Desire’
ANNE MARIE WELSH – For the North County Times | Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 8:55 am

Impassioned or world-weary, naive or cynical, young or old, the nine Iraqi women of Heather Raffo’s “9 Parts of Desire” are survivors, as well as potent reminders of the psychic costs of war and brutal dictatorships.

Mo’olelo Performing Arts’ often heart-stopping production of the 2004 play brings these nine suffering, yet enduring women to vivid individual life. Though there was too much superfluous movement early on and the occasional muddle of voices on opening night, at its best, director Janet Hayatashi’s production is Mo’olelo’s most powerful since “Remains,” the company’s debut offering written by company founder Seema Sueko.

Playwright Raffo, a Catholic Iraqi-American, first visited family in Iraq in 1993. She began interviewing real women and imagining others while she was still a student in the master of fine arts program jointly offered by the University of San Diego and the Old Globe. Her many years of research and writing led her to create neither a theatrical documentary nor a piece of political propaganda.

Instead, she wrote a one-woman play in which these unexpectedly varied voices speak to us in monologues, but also to one another in counterpoint and echo, as if layer upon layer of the hidden lives of everyday Iraqis were being stripped bare. Each voice is different, distinctive; together they reveal the tortured history of a multifaceted culture in crisis.

Initially, Raffo played all the roles herself, a tour de force that won performance and playwriting awards for her all over the world. At Mo’olelo, Hayatashi cast three women, dividing the nine roles among them.

Actor Frances Anita Rivera, new to San Diego, plays a full-bodied Bedouin woman, Amal, as well as the Raffo-based blond American desperate to connect to her extended family in Baghdad. And what a local debut Rivera makes. In both parts, she radiates warmth and vitality, but especially as Amal. A cheery fat woman looking the world over for love, Rivera’s oft-married, often-disappointed Amal has so much spontaneity and life, her spirit spills over into the audience.

As the American, clutching a rosary and reciting the names of her cousins unreachable since the American invasion, Rivera embodies the heartbreak of loving families frayed by emigration and war. And Rivera also roams convincingly about as a Mother Courage-like war profiteer, a stooped, iconic figure in black robes jauntily selling stolen goods to survive.

Actor Dre Slaman proves just as riveting in her role as Huda, a sophisticated Scotch-sipping, intellectual exile in London. Huda’s spine-chilling tales of Saddam Hussein’s brutality make their own case for removing him and the “animals” he created. An inveterate protester and world traveler, Huda has never forgotten the screams of a baby tossed into a sack of hungry cats, its mother raped by Saddam’s stooges, all to torture the child’s father in a nearby cell.

Slaman has a solidity and earthiness on stage that colors even her portrayal of a girl whose school essay about the stars quite by accident implicates her father, who soon disappears. The child loves ‘N Sync, wants to meet Justin Timberlake, yet knows the difference between an M-16 and a Kalashnikov, and the name of every falling bomb and missile by its sound.

The most surprising character is Layal, a famous self-infatuated Iraqi painter who collaborated with the regime, ran the Saddam Art Center, and thus was able to paint famous nudes and portraits — she tells us — like one of a kidnapped woman, covered with honey by her torturers and set upon by Dobermans.

Lisel Gorell-Getz plays this demanding role of a contradictory, self-justifying artist with passion and panache. Her portrayal, still spotty on opening night, will no doubt smooth itself over the course of the three-week run. Best showcased before this in deftly comic parts, Gorell-Getz also morphs into a bereft mother who has turned the Al-Amaria bomb shelter into a museum of death where American bombs from the first Gulf War incinerated her family.

David Weiner created the set, its clutter perhaps meant to suggest the fragmentation of Iraqi culture. The playing space is cut by the Tigris as a river of shoes. Ladders, empty picture frames, and doorways conjure various sites mentioned in the monologues, though this is one play in which the writing itself is so detailed, strong and evocative the production could well play on a bare stage with a minimum of movement.

Media and government attention have shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it perhaps should have been after the terrorist attacks eight years ago. Yet “9 Parts of Desire” feels even more significant now as a lasting work of art wrested from the damage wrought by Saddam Hussein’s regime and America’s injudicious responses to it.

“9 Parts of Desire”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Oct. 22-24 and 30-31; 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 25 and Nov. 1

Where: Mo’olelo at 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., San Diego

Tickets: $15-$18

Info: 619-342-7395



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