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The Kite Runner

Also see Nancy's review of Marie Antoinette

Paige Clark, Nael Nacer and ensemble
"The Kite Runner" was a 2003 best-selling first novel by Khaled Hosseini which was made into a critically acclaimed 2007 film and adapted for the stage by Matthew Spangler. To meet the challenge of converting this epic drama that spans two continents, flashes back and forth in history across thirty years, and paints a colorful picture of the Afghani culture, Spangler chose the most basic means available to him. He stuck to the story.

New Repertory Theatre opens the 2012-2013 season with the New England premiere of The Kite Runner, the story of boyhood friends Amir and Hassan in 1970s Afghanistan. Their complicated relationship, the complexities of the country's ever-changing political situation, and one man's quest for redemption are the cornerstones of this towering tale. As staged by Director Elaine Vaan Hogue and an amazing ensemble of a dozen actors, the majority of whom mark their New Rep debuts in this cast, The Kite Runner is the pinnacle of storytelling. In the lead role of grown-up Amir, Nael Nacer gives a tour de force performance as the protagonist cum narrator, alternately breaking the fourth wall to relate his life story and diving into the action as himself or the shadow of his younger self.

Usually when a play commences with an actor addressing the audience, I brace myself for an evening of more tell than show, but The Kite Runner manages to do both things at the same time and does them exceedingly well. Vaan Hogue takes pains to keep the action playing out around and behind him while Nacer is detailing the events, and he adds to the interest level with his facial expressions, voice modulation, and body language. He seamlessly slides from narration into dialogue and inhabits the emotions appropriate to the scene. Equally important is the fact that there is no confusion about where the scenes occur in time and place, no small feat in a play of this magnitude.

The center of the story is the relationship between young Amir (Fahim Hamid) and Hassan (Luke Murtha), the son of his father's lifelong servant Ali (Johnnie McQuarley). Although they come from different economic and ethnic sects, the boys are unaffected by these divisions and are like brothers. Amir's father Baba (Ken Baltin) has great affection for Hassan and often appears to favor him over his own son, whose penchant for reading and writing poetry implies weakness in Baba's eyes. He recognizes his own attributes in Hassan, the stronger boy who is willing to stand up for himself, as well as for his friend. This difference in the boys' characters leads to the defining moment in Amir's life and sets in motion a chain of events that will haunt him for decades.

Murtha's performance is, at times, heartbreaking, showing the love and loyalty that Hassan feels for Amir. He projects innocence, joy and humility, as well as strength of character and steely resolve. In the second act, when Murtha plays Hassan's son Sohrab, he finds a way to portray the boy's emotional wounds even as he wears a shroud of silence. He shares a strong connection with Hamid who is a worthy counterpart to Nacer. As the younger Amir goes through a range of emotions, Hamid is the picture of dejection in the face of feeling rejected by Baba, only to revel in his affirmation for his kite flying prowess; when he struggles with his conscience, it is written on his face; and he physically shrinks from Hassan when Amir's shame and regret threaten to consume him.

Baltin is commanding as the stern but loving and righteous man who admits his inability to understand and bond with Amir. He teaches his son by his example, as with his loyalty to Ali and his fearlessness in pushing back at a bullying Russian soldier. Together, Nacer and Baltin demonstrate a gradual softening of the standoff between the two and a growing acceptance of each other's personalities after they emigrate to America. Their new relationship is cemented when Baba intercedes for Amir with another Afghani transplant, General Taheri (Dale Place), to convince the strict man to let his daughter Soraya (Paige Clark) marry Amir.

Strong performances all around include Scott Fortier as Baba's business partner Rahim Khan, who takes young Amir under his wing and invites him to return to his homeland thirty years later; John Zdrojeski as the neighborhood bully Assef, whose impact on the two boys reverberates throughout their lives; and Clark, who plays all the female roles, but most affectingly Amir's wife and soul mate. Playing multiple roles, the remainder of the ensemble consists of Ahmad Maksoud, Robert Najarian and Fred Williams. Najarian is also billed as the Violence Designer and his work is disturbingly realistic in numerous fight scenes.

Paul Tate dePoo III has designed the stage to look like a war zone, with a stone terrace surrounded by rubble. The interior of Baba's stately home is suggested by the partial lowering of a blue drapery and glowing chandelier overhead and an upholstered sofa placed center stage. The rendering of the inside of a fuel truck used to transport refugees is inventive, with haze and backlighting contributing to the effect. Mary Ellen Stebbins as the lighting designer and David Reiffel as the sound designer evoke the sights and sounds of the war, and Adrienne Carlile's costume designs include items of traditional Afghani dress, scarves, turbans, military uniforms, and typical western wear. Further authenticity is added by the ubiquitous sound of Williams playing a skin-covered drum. Ryan Edwards is the composer and musical director.

There are some people and events from the novel that are missing from the play, but Spangler honors the truths of Hosseini's story. He places the emphasis where it belongs on Amir's journey, his paralyzing guilt, and his redemption. It is remarkable to observe the resilience of these characters as they suffer so much loss, both personally and nationally, yet continue to rise from the ashes. Despite the fact that our country has been at war with Afghanistan for more than a decade, most of us know very little about the culture or the people. New Rep is chipping away at that ignorance with this production of The Kite Runner and sharing a great, theatrical story filled with humanity and surprising hope for the future.

The Kite Runner, performances through September 30 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or Adapted by Matthew Spangler, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Robert Najarian, Violence Designer; Paul Tate dePoo III, Scenic Designer; Adrienne Carlile, Costume Designer; Mary Ellen Stebbins, Lighting Designer; David Reiffel, Sound Designer; Ryan Edwards, Composer/Musical Director; Lauren L. Duffy, Properties Designer; Christine Hamel, Dialect Coach; Stephen Elrod, Assistant Director; Jayscott Crosley, Production Stage Manager; Meghan Fisher, Assistant Stage Manager

Cast (in alphabetical order): Ken Baltin, Paige Clark, Scott Fortier, Fahim Hamid, Ahmad Maksoud, Johnnie McQuarley, Luke Murtha, Nael Nacer, Robert Najarian, Dale Place, Fred Williams, John Zdrojeski

Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

- Nancy Grossman

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