Monday, December 07, 2009

Today, I received an email from a young Iranian scientist doing research in the United States. The email was titled, "New racism, very sad." It came with the above screenshot and said:

My Iranian friend who lives in Germany, and got her credit card from Germany was trying to book a hostel through just now, and she got the following discriminative message [see above screenshot]. This breaks my heart, this is new racism against people of a country that are giving their lives out on the streets to prove they do not agree with the policies of their government, it seems like the entire world is deaf and does not hear us.

I responded with some routine journalistic questions. Her reply gave me a heartache. Iranian youth get beat up in Tehran streets; must they also suffer abuse abroad?

Dear Ari,

Thanks a lot for the follow up and offering to publicize this matter more. The answers to your questions are as follows:

1. She only had Iranian passport.

2. She was in Germany at the time of use of her master card. She wanted to book a hostel in Spain for one of her friends who lives in Germnay too.

3. Banks require your info at the time of opening the account, they take copy of your passport. I actually had a bank account with the same bank last year when I was in Germany, the name of the bank is sparkasse . Its the only bank that lets Iranian students open a bank account .The other banks such as Deutsche bank and Commerz bank, which are mainly owned by USA, do not accept Iranian citizens even though the German government is paying their salary!

It might be interesting for you also to know that these matters happen in US too, because of the single entry visa that we get and the risk of going out of the country and getting rejected for visa, both me and one of my friends had to turn down travel awards for scientific meetings in Europe this year. All my Lab is currently in Dublin meeting with a group of scientist about MY research, and I could not go. My friend won an Art award and got paid to go to Italy to present her work but she could not go because of the same reason.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Golden Thread 10th anniversary play festival

Whenever I enjoy a politically themed movie or play, I wonder if solidarity with the viewpoint isn’t clouding my judgment of the aesthetics. Is the artist speaking my heart, or is my heart speaking for the artist? Often it is a mix of both, to be honest. But one of the works I watched last Saturday at Golden Thread’s Festival of short Middle East plays shattered the silly question at the outset. Naomi Wallace’s No Such Cold Thing is a spellbinding play that powers its way beyond “friends don’t let friends invade Afghanistan.”

The cast of characters is made up of two young Afghan sisters, an American soldier and three big gunnysacks. They are gathered in a desert near Kabul shortly after the US invasion. We understand why the younger sister wears a burqa, but have no idea why she is also wearing the American soldier’s boots. From this setup and bits of what the characters say to each other, Wallace quickly establishes an eerie sense of “what’s wrong with this picture?” The playwright--who is a winner of the MacArthur Genius Award-- challenges us with seemingly unsolvable riddles, then devastates us emotionally with her imaginative solutions. The chilling outlook of this work persists like theme music across the set of one-act plays that follow.

Betty Shamieh’s Tamam (enough ) shifts the war drama from Afghanistan to Palestine. The play’s cast is a chorus of two actors relating the ordeal of a Palestinian woman who goes to visit her brother in an Israeli prison. There, she is detained and used in a psychology experiment to see how the rape of a sister affects the male Arab mind.

Shamieh’s accusation is so bitter and angry that it makes you wonder if the art of drama is large enough to contain the Palestinian rage. One feels guilty even trying to critique such a raw scream of anguish. This calls for a comparison with another play in this night of one-act plays, Coming Home, by Israeli anti-war playwright Motti Lerner. The two plays are tightly related in theme--they could even be two acts in the same play--yet they emote in radically different universes.

Coming Home aptly brings the American audience home from the bombed and bulldozed living environment of the Palestinians. The setting is a family residence in Israel with familiar characters occupying it. Father likes tennis, and his doctor wife prescribes herself tranquilizers. The son plays guitar and likes to take his girlfriend to the beach. He eats steaks with fries and ketchup. Everything would be the American norm if it weren’t for the Uzi in the dining room and the son stripping himself naked in front of his parents, squirting ketchup all over himself.

The young soldier has had an encounter with and Arab child who was running towards a checkpoint with a suspicious looking school bag over the shoulder. A few seconds wasn’t time enough to ask the question, it was just time enough to pull the trigger. In this play, Lerner brings to light the hidden cost of war to Israeli society. To give a clue as to the magnitude of this cost I will paraphrase Chekhov’s famous insight, “If there’s a gun on the stage, someone better use it.”

Lerner’s Israel and Shamieh’s Palestine exist on the same patch of land, but while the Israeli artist warns his people, the Palestinian artist mourns hers. There are no tennis games, guitars, beaches, and girlfriends on Shamieh’s palette. She has only humiliation, prison, and suicide missions to work with. There are plays that attempt to weave the East and West views of the Middle East conflict into the same story. It doesn’t work! Artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian has been wise to paragraph each part of this single tragedy as separate plays. Otherwise the balancing act would have pulled towards an intellectual debate--as it usually does--instead of tugging at our hearts first one way then the other, the right way to tear something apart.

As a kind gesture to her audience Yeghiazarian has inserted a light-hearted comic relief in between the blood, sweat and tears plays. In the bedroom skit, Call me Mehdi--which Yeghiazarian wrote herself--an Iranian wife sets her American husband straight regarding Rashtis* and Ghazvinis**. Then Yeghiazarian marches us back to Israelis and Palestinians for more bruising, eye-opening, and well-acted theater.


* Jokes having to do with infidelity
** Jokes having to do with sodomy

This review just covers series 1 of the festival plays. Series 2 has a different set of plays, including a work starring Iranian film actress Vida Ghahremani.

Here’s where and when to see the festival of plays.


November 19 - December 13
at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco, CA)

Series 1 – Thursdays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM

Series 2 – Fridays at 8:00 PM & Sundays at 5:00 PM

There is also a related forum with conferences, discussions, dances and music performances. Here’s the information link.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tehran artists in San Francisco

One day, strolling down the streets of Tehran, I noticed that somethings are near and somethings are far. Big deal, I said to myself. Everybody knows there is a here and a there. But why did this thought feel like a find? Why was I inspired by it as though I had just heard a Hafez verse? For some reason, I felt compelled to give life to the sensation so that it can trot out on its own and share itself with other people?

Fortunately, I am a Hafez of sorts myself. I work in a different medium, photographs that hang in a gallery instead of verses written in a book. The poet inside me said I should grab a camera and take a picture of this…this whatever it is. But an ordinary camera wouldn’t do; it had to be a pinhole camera. Why?

I don’t know if this is what went through the mind of Tehran artist Mehran Mohajer as he created the work that had pinned me in front of it for so long. Just guessing! I moved on, promising to come back to Mohajer later. Attracted by the red paint defacing a set of photographs on another wall, I made my way through the crowd to see what that was all about. Nothing at first. Just pictures of busy Tehran streets, each with a red ribbon painted over it. What was the red paint masking in Mohammad Ghazali’s photo art? Musician Arash Sobhani, had no trouble spotting it. When we ran into each other at the gallery opening, I thought here’s someone who likely connects with Ghazali’s The Red Ribbon. Sobhani’s widely admired social criticism in song leaves little unsaid.

“Damned if we focus on it, and damned if we don’t,” Sobhani reacted in Farsi. He was talking about the large shaheed street-posters that would burden Ghazali’s photos with grief, guilt, anger and deceit if it weren’t for the red paint obscuring them. But forgetting or ignoring what is there, leaves scars as noticeable as the wounds, the artwork seemed to argue. “This is Iran’s paradox,” Sobhani said, voicing the sentence with his signature gentle fury. His hand was clenched as though pressing a chord into a guitar neck. The two artists had understood each other well!

Leaving Sobhani to his new artist friend, I ambled back to revisit Mohajer’s pinhole camera photo. A classic pinhole camera doesn’t have a lens, so there’s nothing to focus. As a result everything, both far and near is in focus (see above photo). If our minds worked like pinhole cameras, Iran would have no paradox of focus. It is all just there! There’s one problem with this device though, things that move show up very blurry. Living things going about their business can’t be imaged properly. So Mohajer’s photos have an empty apocalyptic feeling. Ghosts roam here and there, but there’s no stir of life. The Supreme Leader’s face appears clear enough in the distance, but he stares at us immobile from a poster. Splitting the worlds of near and far with color instead of focus, the outer realm is gray, wintry, and silent, while the inner realm is sunlit and talkative.

Promising again to come back to Mohajer, I was attracted by a double-image black and white video on the opposite wall. The left and right videos seemed identical, and at first I thought this must be one of those contraptions where the image becomes 3D if you stare at it the right way. The game was far subtler, however. Among the crowd entering and leaving a busy Tehran subway station, there was one passenger present in the left video that had been digitally erased in the right one. Finding this person takes patience and a strong will to know. The blurb next to the photo said the absent person represents arrested protesters who have disappeared in the recent uprising. Maybe so, but there was also something personal about Neda Razavipour’s work. Had she recently lost someone close to her? Did her work also reflect the shocking realization that the outside world shrugs obliviously at the emotional hole inside of us when we lose someone dear? Again, a young Iranian artist was contemplating the inner versus the outer. In this case Razavipour had connected the two realms. Her nation too had a part of its heart torn out. On the inside there was emptiness where there used to be love, on the outside the missing chunk was in the shape of freedom.

Working the walls one by one, I found equally relevant, emotional and insightful contemporary art by Saba Alizadeh , Homayoun Askari Sirizi, Abbas Kowsari, and Ghazaleh Hedayaat.. Nima Alizadeh’s works had broken out of the frame and spilled out subtly onto the wall paint. Even on the floor of this small gallery there was a work of art where a traditional medium debated modern design. Turning Green is a laser cut wool carpet by the organizer of the show, Bay Area artist Taraneh Hemami. It is in the shape of Tehran’s street map. To go into more detail would impose too much of this writer’s interpretations. Forget what you have read here and go see the works through your own eyes.

As promised I made one last visit to Mohajer to say goodbye to the show. On the way home I thought it would be nice if there were a pinhole “camera” that worked on Time, bringing the same focus to the future as our minds give to the present. Maybe someone could turn the idea into a piece of writing. Then I wondered if Arash Sobhani was thinking what part of the show he could turn into a piece of music. On the inside art is a feeling, on the outside it is a language.

Here’s where-and-when to see the show:

One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran
Wed, Nov 4 - Sat, Jan 23, 2010


Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Gallery hours are Wednesdays - Saturdays, noon-5pm, FREE

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Three Iranian Sopranos

In the movie Moonstruck Nicolas Cage tells Cher, “I love two things, I love you and I love the opera. If I can have the two things I love together for just one night I will be satisfied to give up, oh God, the rest of my life.” Iranians reach spiritual climax with poetry: Hafez, Khayyaam,Rumi; for Italians the national source of rapture is opera: Verdi, Puccini, Rossini. A few nights ago at the music festival I heard three Iranian opera singers, each lovelier than Cher, who left me… starstruck.

Since they were children in Iran, the sisters Shirin and Nasrin Asgari dreamt of becoming opera singers. They spent their playtime pretending be Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Later they made friends with Kamelia Dara, who had also been training to sing since early childhood. They practiced together. Yet hard work and ambition could only take the aspiring artists so far. They quickly realized they needed better training than they could find in Iran. Opera is rooted in Europe; you can’t perfect it in Tehran any more than you can perfect the Persian radif of music in Vienna. So the three came to Austria on tourist visas, hoping they could pass the auditions to be admitted as students. The judges were skeptical. Why put these young women through the punishment of opera training when their reward back home would be cultural disapproval? Could anyone love opera so much that she would stick it out through the torment of the discipline even if the outcome were shame and not fame? Being nice people, the judges gave the would-be students six months to find out for themselves that the pain isn’t worth the trouble.

An opera singer trains her voice so that it can hold its own, un-amplified, against a full orchestra. To find out how difficult this is, try screaming as loudly as you can--on a hilltop perhaps--and see if you can keep up the same volume while controlling your voice to the tune of “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Likely, the wildlife will run away, leaving the trees wishing they could do the same. Yet a good opera singer can voice profound emotions in clear melodic phrases easily breaking beyond the last row in the opera house. You really have to hear it to believe it, so here is the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in front of an 80+ piece orchestra. Start at the 4:20 mark where the orchestra begins a spectacular crescendo--drums and all—and hear Stemme’s voice absolutely dominate Wagner’s orchestral behemoth by the 4:40 mark.

I talked a little with Nasrin Asgari about technique. Her dramatic beauty and delicate features makes it easy to think of her as a fine musical instrument, which is what she is as an opera singer. Sometimes a good singer is said to have a “golden throat,” but in opera the throat must, as much as possible, stay out of the way of the flow of breath. The performer’s throat is almost in a yawning position. It was fascinating to watch Nasrin slide her hands down her ears across the jaw line towards her lips to show how different parts of the face participate in the shaping of the sound. This is why opera singers appear to be making faces. They are actually manipulating the sound texture, for example filtering the “breathiness” out of it to leave purer tones.

When we talked about breath control, Nasrin’s hands began their ascent just above the hipbones. To gather enough air for a long phrase, an opera singer does not blimp as though she’s about to dunk her head under water, rather she gathers a large volume of air calmly with a motion that originates in the diaphragm. Rationing the air outwards along the same path, she can create powerful vibrations throughout her entire torso that she can nuance according to the emotional content of the music. That’s how Snow White gets the creatures of the forest to flock to her rather than flee the kingdom in a zoological diaspora.

Nasrin’s sister, Shirin is a force of nature in herself. She is a rare coloratura soprano. If voices were animals, a coloratura’s voice would be the agile deer or the swift sparrow. Shirin is in high demand with opera productions partly because she can flawlessly nail the impossible F6 note in the midst of a famously rapid passage in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Her role as the wrathful Queen Of The Night in this opera is arguably the most difficult singing in the standard opera repertoire. In this video of Shirin performing part of the song it’s easy to hear why it’s not every soprano who can sing this aria (listen for the first F6 note around the 0:55 second mark).

While Shirin Asgari dazzles with her vocal agility, the third member of the Iranian soprano trio, Kamelia Dara, carries heavier emotional artillery. As with any other musical instrument, the timbre or texture of the voice matters. Some timbres are better suited for the more complex roles. These singers are traditionally called “dramatic sopranos.” Dara is a good example. As a dramatic soprano her voice is like expensive chocolate: there’s something bitter and dangerous beneath all the sweetness and perfume. Yet you can’t resist it.

Someday I hope to hear Dara wrap her voice and persona around a complicated character like Kundry in Wagner’s Parcifal. Cursed more than a thousand years ago, Kundry cannot help but stay beautiful to seduce brave men to their deaths. When she meets Parcifal, she turns into a frighteningly alluring Freud as she magically sings to arouse the hero to sex, all the time desperately hoping he will reject her so that she could finally die. Parcifal must have been tone-deaf! No other explanation for how he survived such beautiful singing.

The Italians Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, have less time for Wagner’s Germanic heavy-mindedness. The most popular Italian opera plots are contrived with unlikely coincidences, tragic errors, and mistaken identities. As we saw with Cher in Moonstruck, these operas shamelessly assault the defenseless tear duct. Silly misunderstandings, senseless suicides, and dumb sacrifices are thrown onto the dramatic pizza like anchovies upon pineapple chunks. This isn’t a matter of bad taste, however. Italian opera uses exaggerated plot as a ladder to emotional acrophobia, the same way our classical poets use hyperbole. The more recklessly the plot dares, the higher our view of the musical vistas laid out before us. This brings us to Iranian opera singers attempting Shekar e Ahoo or Gol e Gandom or whatnot. In the absence of any emotional context but nostalgia, the songs feel affected. Not grand as in good opera, just grandiose.

Often, my operatic sensibilities couldn’t care less if Leili joon ever finds that hunting rifle, or what dire fate awaits poor Bambi/aahoo. Or so I thought until I heard Hooman Khalatbari, the sopranos’ composer and musical director, accompanying the trio on the piano. For example, Khalatbari’s transcriptions of Dokhtar Shirazi and Rashid Khaan for piano and opera voices actually work. This may have to do with Khalatbari seeing himself as a conductor first and a composer second. He brings to his own arrangements a conductor’s critical sense of the right balance between art and showmanship. His piano is not a carpet of chords laid out for the singers to trample over; the singing and the playing hold proper dialog. When the singer is wistful about being naughty or coy with her missing lover, Rashid Khaan, the piano seems to respond with the right melodic giggle. Listening to Khalatbari’s well-assembled quartet (piano + 3 sopranos) for once I didn’t ache for the singers to break out into a hearty Dashtestani where I thought our folk melodies belonged.

In the light of Khalatbari raising the bar on Iranian folk song “arias,” I asked Shirin Asgari if she had considered also raising the Iranian singer’s stakes on technical brilliance. She seemed receptive to the idea of demanding Iranian folk arrangements that take full advantage of her astonishing reach and nimbleness. Hopefully Khalatbari will oblige her—and us.

Based on a misconception of Iranian culture, the Austrian music judges had hoped to gently dissuade Nasrin, Shirin, and Kamelia from wasting time on opera training. But six months later, even before the sopranos’ university classes officially began, the young women had already taught an ethnographic lesson to these judges: the typical √©migr√© to Europe from many Muslim countries settle in the West to lift themselves off the economic floors of their homelands; the Iranian diaspora, on the other hand, has uprooted from home to break through Iran’s artistic and academic ceilings.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Merchant of Chaarmahaal

A Jew lends someone money, the borrower can’t pay it back so the Jew demands a chunk of flesh in payment. This isn’t Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; it is a story from Iran’s Chaahaarmahaal and Bakhtiaari province. The subtleties of this anti-Semitic characterization are explored reasonably well in Shakespeare’s work, so we’ll move on to the legal adventures of the protagonist: the idiot who borrowed the money.

He was simple man who at an old age resolved to improve his lot in life. The Jew was a neighbor who according to the story had amassed his wealth in “many different ways.” At first he was reluctant to lend money to an old man with no collateral whatsoever. But the old man wouldn’t hear ‘no’ for an answer. Fleshing out this bare bones story, the Jew must have been impressed by the old man’s insistence. Surely if this borrower started a business with the money, his determination and perseverance would help him succeed. So the Jew struck a deal with the old man. For every coin loaned the old man must put up a mesghaal (about 5 grams) of flesh for collateral. Never mind the motive for this macabre contract, for that I recommend renting Al Pacino’s The Merchant of Venice. Meanwhile let’s find out how the old man lost his shirt.

He bought merchandize from one place to sell somewhere else. On the road, highway robbers attacked him and stole his wares. Here’s where our Iranian Jew faced a different predicament than Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s play. The old man’s Venetian counterpart, Antonio, lost his fortune at sea, whereas the Iranian Antonio (we’ll call him Hassanio) could have taken precautions against highway robbers. Did Hassanio hire security guards, or did he risk his neighbor’s money by skimping on preparations? This detail is important in the court battle that is about to ensue.

Needless to say, Hassanio wouldn’t let Shylockpour cut him up, so they set off to see the judge. Part way to the city, they ran into a fellow whose donkey was stuck in the mud. Hassnio wanted to help, but Shylockpour said, “If you feel so sorry for him, you lend a hand. I’m staying out of this.” Was Shylockpour an unhelpful man? Don’t jump to conclusions until you see what happens next.

Hassanio got into mud, grabbed the donkey’s tail and pulled as hard as he could. Now anyone who has ever helped a donkey out of the mud knows you don’t pull the animal by the tail. It’s not a tow cable. The donkey’s tail broke off, and the very upset owner joined the march to the city to demand compensation from Hassanio. Did the donkey owner say, “Good Hassanio, this was but noble intent fouled by misfortune, so thou art off the hook?” Nothing of the sort, and this wariness of human ingratitude may have been why Shylockpour didn’t want to get involved. We’ll knock a few points off him because if he had helped, the donkey may still have had a tail. But Shylockpour gets fewer demerits now that we’re on to his Shakespearean complexity.

With two plaintiffs on his case, Hassanio was so distraught that at the next town he climbed to the top of a minaret and threw himself from it. He didn’t bother to look where he would fall, and soft-landed on top of a beggar who was instantly killed. So the beggar’s son joined the procession of Hassanio’s accusers. Any judge has to consider that Hassanio’s negligence lost another person's gold, his stupidity seriously injured an animal, and his carelessness cost someone his life. By all accounts Hassanio was a menace to the kingdoms of man and beast. Yet somehow we still root for him. Anyone this unlucky must have a powerful horde of demons conspiring against him. To have a happy ending, the story must give Hassanio a break. And so it does, in a way that reveals how the Chaahaarmahaal and Bakhtiaari folks viewed their society.

When they arrived at the judge’s house, Hassanio noticed that His Honor was hobnobbing with the very highway robbers that had stolen his wares. Did the simple and honest Hassanio cry out to the world that the judge is in the pay of thieves? No, instead of helping his fellow citizens rid themselves of a corrupt official, he and the judge went into a whispering huddle and made a deal. So the judge ignored the case we have been meticulously building against Hassanio. The verdict handed down was that Shylockpour could cut off Hassanio’s flesh, but if he removed even a smidgeon over the amount, Hassanio would be allowed to carve him up in retaliation. Filling in again for Shylockpour’s thinking, he knew that scales in such a town are likely to measure a one mesghaal weight as two mesghaals. So he wisely withdrew his claim, perhaps happy to have fought and relieved to have lost.

The judge told the beggar’s son he is welcome to climb a minaret and throw himself at Hassanio’s head if he wished. That was the end of that claim. Finally it came to the guy holding the detached tail of a donkey as exhibit A. Seeing the state of affairs in this town, he too gave up on justice. But he withdrew his claim with a biting remark that is now as quotably famous as any line of Shakespeare's: “Your Honor,” he said, “khareh maa az korregi dom nadaasht.” (My donkey didn't have a tail to begin with).

Orignial folk tale from the collection Afsaanehaaye chaahaarmahal va Bakhtiaari
Edited byAli Asmand and Hossein Khosravi.
1998 Eel publications
Printed in Shar-e-Kord, Iran

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Girl’s War

A play by Joyce Van Dyke
Directed by Torange Yeghiazarian

Any play with Iranian-born Bella (Ramezan-nia) Warda in the cast necessarily draws special attention to the acting. A well behaved play does not depend on brilliant acting to convey its ideas, and playwright Joyce Van Dyke has created such a work in A Girl’s War. Nevertheless, powerful actors like Warda dig their spurs deep into the work, making it bolt like a trained animal shocked back into its wild nature. It is noticeable how much the other actors enjoy sharing their scenes with Warda as Arashaluis, the fiercely patriotic Armenian mother. To survive the intensity that this actress brings to the stage, the other actors courageously counter with their own show of force.

Actess Ana Bayat who plays the lead role as the beautiful fashion model Anna, is on the frontlines in Warda’s assault. At two different levels, as it turns out: acting style as well as character conflict. Anna is Arshaluis’ politically indifferent daughter pressured by her mother to take up arms against their enemy, the Azerbaijani Turks. Here’s a scene where Warda and Bayat lock horns. Arsahaluis is ladling yogurt into Anna’s mouth, and with each spoonful the mother feeds a bit of Armenian history into her daughter, barely letting Bayat finish her line before Warda’s next spoonful arrives. “Keep up, step to it, more passion,” Warda seems to demand. “Let me be; I want composure, I want control,” Bayat seems to say. Which is exactly the dynamic between the characters in the play. Anna has turned her back on her country’s fight for land and identity. Moving to the United States, she has embraced a naive political individualism. Arshaluis on the other hand is driven by nationalistic passion, to the point of sacrificing logic. To paraphrase the lines, Arshaluis says “This is not yogurt; it is madzoon. Yogurt is Turkish, madzoon is Armenian.” “But it’s made exactly the same way,” Anna protests in between spoonfuls.” “No,” Arshaluis insists. “madzoon!”

Another character whose acting goes into high gear in Warda’s presense is the Afghan born Zarif Kabier Sadiqi as the Azerbaijani deserter Ilyas Alizadeh. To be fair, Arshaluis holding an automatic weapon at him does give Sadiqi an excuse to act larger. But his best scene with Warda is not the gun battle scene; it is scene when Arshaluis remembers him as a child in the village before ethnic wars destroyed the community. She embraces him with nostalgic warmth, bringing out jam and cookies for the reunion. Of course she suspects him. Has he really deserted, or is he a spy? Ilyas in turn is ambivalent, but for the moment both emote as though they lived in the world they asked for, and not in the world they got.

It wouldn’t have worked to write the ferocious Arshaluis into the scene where Anna and Ilyas get naked and have sex, but the scene could have used some of Arshaluis’ explicit passion. When Ilyas shows Anna his penis, I couldn’t read in her face whether she was witness to an erection or something less. Ilyas seems to appraise himself highly, but Anna is clinical, her embarrassment perhaps too well covered up. In the actor's dilemma of catering to audience laziness or remaining true to character, Byat chooses character. Or maybe she didn’t wish to compete with the symbolic content of the scene. Anna does not just sleep with the enemy; she baptizes the Muslim under a Christian cross before she lies with him.

For the playwright Van Dyke and Iranian-born director Yeghiazarian balancing Anna and Arshaluis must have taken some thought. Since the daughter Anna has no convictions, the story is really about the mother Arshaluis. On the other hand, the American audience identifies with Anna, not Arshaluis. So Anna gets the most stage time, and Arshaluis gets the best lines and the stronger actor. Anna/Bayat can advocate peace and a reserved acting style, while Arshaluis/Warda can worry about apathy taking soldiers out of the fight, and whether a generation that refuses passion may also refuse action.
There is another strongly bonded pair of characters in the play: Simon Vance as Stephen, a professionally manipulative photographer and Adrian Cervantes Mejia as Tito, Stephen's loyal sidekick. Vance is a nuanced actor, creating a Stephen whose job demands a cruelty and objectivity that goes against his compassionate inner nature. Mejia matches Vance's strengths with his ability to project Tito's generosity of soul. I don't know if it comes from Tito's affable smile, the happy gait, or the innocenct wide eyes even when he's wearing a bloody bandage on his head.
See the play yourself to tease apart how Stephen and Anna create tension on the stage. Her scenes with Tito do just the opposite; they give the play its light moments . Tito and Ilyas also come together, albeit briefly and violently. But that's all in the play.

This link includes where, when, and more info on the play

Monday, January 12, 2009

Angels of War

Tom Cruise’s WWII thriller Valkyrie has had some oddly nonsensical reviews. Scratching his head about this, critic Roger Ebert says, “I am at a loss to explain the blizzard of negative advance buzz [about the film].” The zaniest of such negative reactions was penned by Roger Friedman of Fox News. This reviewer complains, “You knew it would be bad, and it is.” For a professional film review, this is an absurd statement. How could Friedman know the movie was bad before he’d seen it? Smelling a rat, I checked out the film and found it. Ostensibly about German officers plotting to blow up Hitler, Valkyrie makes us think the unthinkable: is the US military justified in overthrowing its own government if the country is being led to certain ruin.

“He [Cruise] doesn’t even attempt a German accent,” Friedman says in his panicked review. “His American accent gets very bad, to the point where he’s dropping the g’s.” As a professional critic, Friedman would know that Cruise’s American accent is likely a deliberate choice by the director to connect Hitler’s war mongering with current US militarism. The film’s opening credits literally spell this out for us by fading the German spelling of the words into their English equivalents. In an attempt to throw the film’s potential audience off the scent, Friedman feigns bewilderment at the choice of Tom Cruise for the lead role. “He’s completely miscast,” the review insists, citing Cruise’s Jerry Maguire. This is a misleading casting reference, as Friedman would know. The correct reference is Cruise’s Born On The Fourth of July. The Oscar nominated role as a severely wounded American soldier, makes Cruise the perfect choice to play the German colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, who lost a hand and an eye in WW II. Perfect, that is, if the director wants to draw a parallel between the patriotic German soldier sick of Hitler’s lunacies and the patriotic American soldier sick of ass pyramids at Abu Ghraib.

To drive home the current events allegory, Valkyrie even imitates, tongue-in-cheek, Obama’s campaign slogan. The German colonel tells his co-conspirators that Hitler’s assassination is imperative because “a change must be made.” In an allusion to political protest being framed as “pallin’ around with terrorists,” Von Stauffenberg tells a potential recruit, “I am involved in high treason…can I count you in?” Reminding us of the disgrace of former US attorney general Alberto Gonzales, the movie details how in Western societies regulations can be finagled to engineer power grabs. Quickly it becomes obvious why Fox News, the media arm of US militarism, would assault the film.

Friedman makes his clearest argument against the film when he says he didn’t like it “Because in Valkyrie Singer [the director] opens the door to a dangerous new thought: that the Holocaust and all the atrocities could be of secondary important [sic] to the cause of German patriotism.” Never mind that the hero is trying to end the war; Friedman is disappointed that he is doing it for the wrong reason, acting "only" to save his country from annihilation. It would have been meaningless if Von Stauffenberg had succeeded in ending World War II, says Friedman’s logic, because the ensuing cessation of Hitler’s war crimes would have been coincidental!! Just a few months before Von Stauffenberg’s July plot to eliminate Hitler, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. I doubt any of the surviving inmates would have minded being rescued unintentionally.

I saw Valkyrie a few hours after I had returned from a Gaza protest rally; so images of civilian massacre were freshly painful on my mind, making one particular symbolism in the film go far with me. Von Stuaffenberg had lost an eye to the enemy, and the film made sure the audience kept that in mind. Despite the cruel wording, the “eye for an eye’ directive in the Torah is meant to limit the retribution one can exact. It is a ban against unbridled vengeance. If someone pokes out your eye, then take his eye if you must. But you are forbidden to go on to kill his wife, burn his kids, tear down his house, take away his livelihood, and devastate his land.

The enemy owed Von Stauffenberg an eye, but with his good eye he could still see that continuing the war would ultimately lead to the annihilation of his own nation. Crazy Hitler couldn’t see that.