Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Tale of Two Plays

It's taken me a week to decide whether to post this or not. Not that it's particularly controversial, but because I was seriously doubting my own opinion. Theatreworks at UCCS just finished their season with two plays about the Middle East done in repertoire. They are meant as a means to better understand cultures that are quite literally foreign to most of us. Both plays received rave reviews locally and from the Denver Post arts critic. I agree with one, but not the other.

Nine Parts of Desire is a one-woman play featuring Karen Slack as nine Iraqi women. She moves from one position on the stage to another seamlessly, changing character as she goes. With the help of a black piece of cloth used as everything from a shawl to a head scarf to a skirt, Slack also physically transforms from a preteen girl to an elder woman to a fat Bedouin divorcee to a hip London intellectual to a twenty-something Iraqi-American. Over the course of the play, the tension and pathos build until the actress and the audience are emotionally drained. This was a moving, visceral experience. Bits of it still come back to me a week later.

Dar al-Harb, the other play, keeps coming back to, but not in a good way. It is based on the true event of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He came to Greeley, Colorado, in 1949 to attend what was then a teaching college. He left a short time later so hating America that he is now known as the father of Islamic radicalism. Murry Ross, Artistic Director of Theatreworks, wrote this play as a way to explain what may have happened. At least that's the story in the program.

Let me say that I like plays that combine a lot of things. Last year's Wonderland, a reimagining of the Alice story, was great. And Something's Rotten had three actors trying to do Hamlet with a narcoleptic lead. Since they were short on cast, Teddy Ruxpin played Polonius--brilliant. But this felt more like Ross couldn't decide what kind of play he wanted to write so he threw in a bit of everything. There is a video screen behind the action that shows 1949 pop culture pictures, often in concert with radio ads or popular music. One of the musical numbers I enjoyed was Qutb and a co-ed lipsyncing to Baby It's Cold Outside.

There are moments when Ross touches on things that may have upset Qutb and caused his low opinion of America. Churches that promote fraternization between young people through socials and dances, co-eds in revealing clothing, a culture of consumerism in the post-war boom, students making fun of his differences. But then he mixes it up with a jinn whose name is John Lee Hooker, a woman who pretends to be Muslim and wears a burka in an attempt to seduce Qutb, and three clerics who act as a sort of Greek chorus. I'm not Muslim, but I was offended at several points.

Their hearts may have been in the right place, but the outcome of their intentions was definitely mixed. Maybe next time one of their own decides to pen a screenplay, they'll send it through a critiquing process before producing it.

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