Pat Launer’s review!

October 15, 2009


THE SHOW: Nine Parts of Desire,” a drama set in Iraq, at Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company

Five months ago, Heather Raffo returned to her alma mater, the University of San Diego, to receive the 2009 Author E. Hughes Career Achievement Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. While she was there, she performed excerpts from her stunning play, “Nine Parts of Desire,” which she began writing while she was at USD (1996-1998), pursuing her MFA. In 1993, she had traveled to Iraq, the land of her father, where she spent part of her youth. She met, ate with and lived with many Iraqis, and over the course of a decade, distilled the stories down to nine women who touched and moved her, whom she couldn’t forget. Using only an abaya, a traditional Iraqi black, robe-like garment, she inhabited the various characters just by changing the way she draped or wore the cloth. It was a stirring, affecting performance, one for which she garnered acclaim in London and New York where,  in 2004, she won a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Solo Show and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Special Commendation. Career Achievement, indeed.

The play is an ideal match for Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, which specializes in telling the stories of those whose voices are rarely heard. The mission of the vagabond group (last year in residence at the La Jolla Playhouse), focuses on speaking for varied and under-served communities and bringing new groups to the theater. Instead of presenting the play as a solo show, they’ve expanded it to three actors, each playing three roles. And they do something Raffo herself couldn’t manage, in spite of her prodigious talent. The women interact, they support each other, they sometimes echo each other’s words. Under the expert, delicate and meticulous direction of Janet Hayatshahi, they waft in and out of these heart-rending stories, passing one abaya among them, wearing it guardedly or carelessly, over the face or off the shoulder, as chador or as painting smock. Beneath it, they’re dressed in modern Western clothes, showing us that they’re really just like us, only in extremis.

They are all survivors, women of profound courage and strength, who share a great deal: guilt for the fortitude and good fortune that has kept them alive, grief for those they’ve lost and a deep and abiding love of their country. The play’s title refers not only to the number of women. It’s borrowed from a non-fiction book by Australian reporter Geraldine Brooks, who in turn quotes from Iman Ali in the Koran: “God made desire in ten parts and gave nine to women.” The proverb is often used as justification for cloistering and covering Islamic women. For Raffo, it’s an allusion to the earthiness and frank sexuality of the women who captivated her. But their most fervent desire may be for their lives to return to a semblance of normality, to a place of peace, where they can live openly, vibrantly, unencumbered by laws, rules, subjugation and heavy cloth.

The most colorful character is Layal, based on the artist Layla Al-Attar, who became curator of the Saddam Art Center (painting innumerable portraits of the leader) by placating the regime, offering her body to anyone who would help her stay alive. But Layla/Layal, a forceful, free-spirited woman, also made very subversive pictures, displayed in the upper floors of the Center – risky paintings, of nude women, that surreptitiously denounce the regime. She was only successful up to a point, killed in a U.S. missile attack in 1993. Also memorable is Amal, the lusty Bedouin, who has left two husbands and, still filled with hope, pursues a third, only to be devastated when he abandons her.

The actors speak in varied accents (coached by the Old Globe’s dialect-maven, Jan Gist) and move deftly through the evocative set (David F. Weiner), a snakelike array of water vessels and bowls, symbolizing both the daily tasks of a woman and the all-important River Euphrates. The background is a wall of blue-green Moorish architecture, the floors strewn with pillows. And there’s one tree, an important image in the art-work of Layal.

That unforgettable character is marvelously inhabited by Lisel Gorell-Getz, who underscores the character’s unshakable lust for life. She also does wonderful work as the doctor who only delivers deformed and diseased babies, due to the various contaminants left behind by the war; and Umm Ghada, sole survivor of the Amirya shelter where 400 people died, including her nine children, after an American, Gulf War bombing. Now she offers ghoulishly dispassionate tours of the place, and she asks us to sign the guestbook, too. They all speak to us directly, as if we’re their interviewers, or friends – or their eyewitnesses.

Dré Slaman is excellent as a wide-eyed 8-year-old girl who misses her father, realizing too late that her youthful, casual remark may have been responsible for his kidnapping and death.  Slaman also makes a strong statement as Mullaya, the professional mourner and Huda, the whiskey-drinking exile who feels she should have been in Baghdad during the worst of it.

Frances Anita Rivera is powerful as the beggarwoman, Nanna; as Amal, the Bedouin; and as the Iraqi-American (based, presumably, on Raffo herself), fingering her rosaries as she compulsively recites the names of the relatives in Iraq whom she’s unable to contact, hoping they’re still alive. At the end, all the women join in the litany of names. And then, in a rising chorus, they repeat the only words an Iraqi relative knows in English, “I love you,” until it crescendos into a prayer, a plea for recognition, not only from the relatives, but from the world.

THE LOCATION: Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10TH Ave. (619) 342-7395.

THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-$27.  Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., through November 1.


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