Guthrie mounts a poignant 9 Parts of Desire
In the Guthrie's production of 9 Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo's one-woman play, the stage opens on a turgid river of undulating cloth that loosens and ebbs to reveal desert sand and the washed up detritus of times ancient and present. It's an effective beginning for a play that glimpses the emotional debris of eight Iraqi women and one American-Iraqi, whose lives are affected by centuries of dominance, tyranny and war.
Rest assured, there's no "poor-me" in Raffo's play. The characters address the audience directly in moments of searing honesty, some feisty as a lioness in heat, some conflicted or resigned, others frayed to breaking, one plump and engaging, another locked in numbed dignity.
Kate Eifrig plays all nine women and invests herself fully in each, finding pathos, and yet I was conscious of the gap between a gifted American actress and the women she portrays from such a different culture.
Music from Middle Eastern instruments swirls in C. Andrew Mayer's sound design, and light dims in Marcus Dilliard's lighting to signal shifts from one character to another. Eifrig turns from the audience, shifts her body language and accent, or the use of her abaya (veil), and it's clear which woman she inhabits when first we meet them. But as the women reappear and evolve, it becomes harder to track; twice I found myself correcting an initial impression.
Eifrig's first woman is a funeral singer and a mythic sort of storyteller, covered head to toe in her black abaya, who gives a poetic sense of Iraq's long past and difficult present that flows onwards, inevitable as the river.
When Eifrig assumes confident Layal, a celebrated artist who ensures her safety by consorting with Saddam Hussein and his powerful cabal, there's not a shadow of doubt about identity. This spirited water-colorist revels in her sexuality, is passionate about the freedom she finds in love and her art, even though she's labeled a whore.
Amal, a much-married Bedouin women with two children, seeks the ideal man to wrap in her ample love. An ex-patriot in London, Huda is part of Iraq's old intelligentsia, a whiskey-drinking communist and supporter of Bush's war to oust wicked Saddam Hussein. A western-trained pediatrician vomits between speaking. She's a bag of nerves. She recalls Iraq once having the finest hospitals in the Middle East and she mourns for her small patients, who are born with deformities from the depleted uranium in American bullets and bombs.
A young Iraqi girl, watching 'N Sync on TV, tells how she unwittingly betrayed her father and how he was taken away and never seen again. Since the Americans invaded, she is not allowed to leave the apartment or attend school. Umm Ghada's daughter was killed in the underground Amiriya bomb shelter when a concrete-busting bomb landed on it, turning it into an oven that baked the 408 Iraqis sheltering within. Now, Umm Ghada lives in a trailer at the mouth of the shelter, and shows visitors around its scarred ruins. She spreads an abaya to form the black hole where the bomb entered.
An old woman in an abaya desperately hawks her belongings, from Iraqi antiques to modern trinkets. She's hungry. "It's very worth," she pleads. "Two dollar." She claims the Americans encouraged looting since, with their heritage lost, Iraqis would be easier to control.
An American college student represents the playwright, glued to CNN during the Gulf War, terrified she will see the bodies of her Iraqi uncles and cousins. "Why don't we count the Iraqi dead?" she pleads.
A longing for freedom strings the characters together by. They tell stories of girls being abducted for sex, then beheaded for being prostitutes, of a baby fed to starving cats in front of its mother. The unimaginable cruelties under Saddam are gleaned from Raffo's research, talking to women in Iraq.
The women in 9 Parts of Desire tell of revolutions, Saddam's tyranny, ongoing wars and the 13-year embargo; as an American, I could not help but feel the weight of consequence for our part in the havoc of these vivid lives.
9 Parts of Desire is director Joel Sass's second one-woman play currently running and, again, he directs with fluid inventiveness, witness the undulating, grubby river in the opening scene. He also designed the simple set, with its washed up waste, a charred Chippendale chair, a dumped TV, a broken chandelier, an amphora, copper basin, singed books and shoes, lots and lots of shoes, the shoes of the missing.
9 Parts of Desire, March 1 - March 23, 2008. Wednesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 7:00 p.m. Matinees selected Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $18 - $34. Call 612- 377-2224 or www.guthrietheater.org. Guthrie Theater, 818 South Second St., Minneapolis.