The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting (chapter 7), says “In the theater, the playwright is God.” In screenwriting, on the other hand, the prevailing theology is that the director is God. The play Benedictus is about a Muslim and a Jew meeting in a Christian monastery, yet ironically God’s meddlesome hand has been slapped away. Displaying artistic chutzpah, the creators proudly declare that Benedictus has been put together by committee. Instead of the expected chaos however, a curious Darwinian order emerges from the multiplicity of perspectives.
Benedictus is a collaboration of Iranian, Israeli and American artists. This composition in itself immediately gives form to what the play will be about: the Iran-US-Israel conflict. I had hoped a less obvious theme would assert itself, but though one can occasionally negotiate with God, there is no arguing with reality. Subtlety takes longer to evolve.
The character Ahser Muthada, an Iranian born Israeli arms dealer, projects the Israeli point of view. Ben Martin, traumatized into alcoholism by his experience as a hostage in the 1979 US embassy crisis, is the American. Ali Kermani, an out-of-power Iranian reformist president, takes on the burden of being the Iranian. The three come together in Rome, each with their own agenda. Muthada is there to beg safe passage out of Iran for his Jewish Iranian sister He has good reason to fear for her safety because the US is only hours away from invading Iran. Kermani is in a position to help her, but won’t do so unless he gets what he wants: a secret meeting with a US official who can help stop the war. That would be the alcoholic Ben Martin, who is now a US ambassador. Kermani believes Muthada can set up such a meeting, and is in a sense holding Muthada’s sister hostage.
But nothing is as it seems, as they say. Plot twists reveal surprising hidden motivations, and in the tradition of sophisticated drama, each character sees the others more clearly than he sees himself. For example Kermani’s plea to save Iranians who would die in the impending war are countered by Muthada’s reminder that Kermani isn’t as concerned with life when it comes to the Islamic regime’s support of terrorism, and the brutal suppression of internal dissent.
Sadly, Kermani does not put up a worthy defense. This is partly because the Islamic regime’s position is difficult to uphold in the first place. Another reason is that the collaborating artistic team is composed of Iranians, Israelis, and Americans who disagree with the regime. The main reason however is artistic: Al Faris who plays Ali Kermani is not in love with his character. His comfort zone in Bendictus is the introverted, opaque type who, in his self righteousness, considers his opponents beneath emotional sharing. Though the Kermani character is certainly an upgrade from the terrorist types Feris has sometimes portrayed in mainstream films, he has to labor to operate outside those familiar unemotional parameters.
Ali Pourtash, on the other hand ingeniously lodges his character, the Israeli-Iranian Asher Muthada, into our hearts and minds. Muthada throws his arms around Kermani when they first meet in the secret negotiations chamber at the Benedictine monastery. They were childhood friends in Iran before the revolution. They played soccer on the same team. They spent time together in the Shah’s prisons. All those memories are embraced in Muthada’s wrap of his arms around his old friend. For Muthada, Kermani has the smell of home, of youth, adventure, idealism. The sight of his old friend takes him back to the time when they both Looked hopefully to the future instead of bitterly into the past. Muthada is reluctant to let go the hug. Kermani, on the other hand, hesitates to embrace Muthada. Something inhuman has occupied his soul, or perhaps the emotionally genuine Muthada had misunderstood Kermani’s calculating friendship all along.
Of course Muthada is not naïve, though he wishes he lived in a world where he could be. Like a loyal traditional wife Muthada even remembers what foods Kermani likes. The wealth Muthada has accumulated as an arms dealer is the result of his shrewd and non-judgmental assessment of human realities. While the young Kermani rose to power by exploiting idealism, Muthada could not pretend to transcend his fellow man; he got rich participating in the genuine savagery of our human nature.
All this and more is reflected in the brilliance of the Muthada characterization both by the writer Motti Lerner and by the actor Ali Pourtash. While Faris performs his actor’s duty and gets some sympathy for his character’s Islamic background, Pourtash, with openhearted humor, lavishes nuances on his Jewish character. Muthada’s unabashed solution to his national vs. religious identity issue is, “Who ordered Kosher?” This he blusters at the Benedictine nun attendant who has respectfully brought him a tray of food.
While the play was being created, there were intense moments of political disagreement between the various factions of the artistic team. It seems Faris wished his character could be portrayed as more trustworthy. Perhaps this is the directorial error that weakened this actor’s commitment to the Muslim character. The biggest mistake however, was made by Iran. Iran’s representative of the ITI (International Theatre Institute) turned down an invitation by the project’s initiator, Roberta Levitow, to participate. It seems Iranian resident artists felt a collaboration “is not possible at this time.” The opportunity for more input from the Iranian Muslim point of view was therefore squandered in mistrust. This was two years ago. Today, as war with the US creeps closer, the seriousness of such negligence in appreciating the communication power of art is more apparent.
Of course, not everyone can benefit from communication; sometimes art is just therapy. The American in the play, Ben Martin, is psychologically devastated by his experience as a hostage. His captors at the US embassy in Tehran used to click empty guns against his temple. Earl Kingston, who portrays Martin, does such an adept job of projecting this trauma that one wonders if the man is psychologically fit to be in any decision making loop regarding Iran. Benedictus is meant to suggest questions, and one question Martin’s experience raises is what share of Israel’s fear of Iran’s hostile posture is due to the trauma of the Nazi Holocaust.
Benedictus succeeds as entertaining and thoughtful theatre; its failures are the failures of our time not of the artists. Therefore its flaws are just as watchable as its strengths. Founding artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian and director Mahmood Karimi Hakak have delivered a work of high artistic quality. This includes attention to details sometimes neglected, such as music and sound design. Mitchell Greenhill starts the mood with melodic Middle Eastern flavored music, but as war nears he greatly enhances the foreboding developments with disturbing cello notes.
Ultimately though my favorite statement in the play is delivered by set designer Daniel Michaelson. Ostensibly to make the small stage appear bigger, he has created a physical perspective by converging the lines of the stage walls towards a vanishing point. At this singularity there is a door where the players enter into the secret negotiations chamber to hammer out deals. Of all the multiple ideological perspectives presented in the play, this singular physical point, the entrance into the negotiating room, represents the unifying principle of Benedictus. Michaelson seems to be saying, “There’s the place where peace begins.”