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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Homebody/Kabul Offered by The Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Also see Richard's recent review of Sisters and Tape


The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting the west coast premiere of Tony Kushner's provocative Homebody/Kabul. This undoubtedly will be one of the most talked about plays this season. I sat in the theater for three hours and 40 minutes mesmerized by the writing, the acting and the direction of this passionate drama of Afghanistan in 1998, after the Americans had bombed Khost. Even though Kushner's play was four years in the making, Homebody/Kabul could not be more timely. Words like Taliban, the Northern Alliance, Kabul, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Jalamabad meant nothing to the average American until 9/11. Today, they have an immediate identity. This drama gives the audiences a fascinating insight into the war-ravaged country of Afghanistan.

The play opens in a small confortable living room in London where a lonely English lady, played by the amazing actress Michelle Morain, sits in an easy chair beside a lamp reading a 30 year-old travel book on this Near Eastern country. She is a bored and wildly intellectual housewife who speaks in hyperbole. A deluge of words pour from her mouth about the 5000 year old history of Afghanistan, about regime after regime taking over the country and repopulating the valley where Kabul stands. She goes off on tangents, and talks about her unemotional life with her husband and daughter. She talks about meeting an Afghan merchant in London who sells hats from his country. His stories fascinate her and she wants to leave her imprisoning domestic life and seek the adventures and romance of Afghanistan.

Following this astonishing solo opening, the curtain opens up onto a grimy phantasm of crumbling concrete rubble and wire mesh that represents Kabul in 1998. The Taliban control the streets and there is an air of oppression about the place. The housewife has disappeared. We were told she was killed by a mob for not being properly dressed in a burka. The housewife's stolid unromantic husband Milton and the feisty, chain-smoking, neurotic daughter Priscilla come to the city to find the mother's body.

The husband enlists a confirmed English junkie, a messed up British Aid worker called Quanto Twisleton, to help them in their quest. The druggie introduces the staid British husband to the wonders of various drugs, and for the rest of the play both stay in the hotel room stoned out of their minds. Priscilla meets various residents of the city including an uproarious merchant who has learned English by listening to Frank Sinatra records. Priscilla also meets an Afghan woman, Mahala, who may have had a connection with the mother. It appears that the deceased mother may have married an Afghan man and that Mahala may have been this man's first wife. Mahala appears to have become insane because of the Taliban repression of free thought. This part is very confusing due to the playwright's extraordinarily dense dialogue. She tells Priscilla of her life in Afghanistan by saying "We must suffer under the Taliban so that the U.S. might settle a 20 year old score with Iran! You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well don't worry, they're coming to New York! American!" This was spoken in 1998, and the playwright wrote those words well before 9/11.

The whole play is about the longing of the three women: the housewife's desire which leads her to disappear in the capricious country after emotionless relationships with both the husband and daughter; the Afghan woman's need to break from her sequestered existence wrapped in the burka and who needs to be free to think for herself; and the daughter who needs to construct her own identify and find someone she can trust.

The acting ensemble is astounding. Michelle Morain's 45 minute opening solo piece is spellbinding. Sometimes the words are hard to understand but the effect is hypnotic. Heidi Dippold, who has appeared off-Broadway and on soap operas, gives a wonderful, antagonistic portrait of Priscilla. Jacqueline Antaramian is passionate as the free thinking Mahala. Narsh Nayyar is very eloquent as a poet Priscilla meets. Bruce McKenzie as the drug-using British Aid worker, and Charles Shaw Robinson as the husband beautifully play the drug saturated scenes as a counterpoint to the daughter's encounters with the Afghan people. The rest of the cast are marvelous in the roles of Afghan locals. All give superlative performances.

The production is directed with customary skill by the innovative Tony Taccone. Peter Maradudin's lighting is extraordinary. He defines rooms with window shaped pools of light. Linda Tanji has created a wonderful multi-ethnic bazaar of the various costumes of the country. Kate Edmunds' set of wire and crumbling concrete gives the look of a war ravaged city.

Homebody/Kabul runs through June 23 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Call (510)647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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