Reviewed by Will Stackman
The last major solo show of the fall season, Heather Raffo's "9 Parts of Desire" is currently running at the Lyric Stage. Originally performed by the author at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, this sequence of monodramas is based on interviews with Iraqi women in that wartorn country and abroad. This New England premiere is an entirely new production with writer/performer Lanna Joffrey in the lead. Raffo, who received a Lortel for her work in 2005, is currently performing her piece in Washington, DC, and developing its screenplay. Both woman are Americans whose families came here in exile some years ago. Raffo still has relatives in Iraq; Joffery's people fled Iran when the Shah fell.
This show is directed by award-winning Boston director Carmel O'Reilly, whose Sugan Theatre is taking a breather this season. She's recruited Harvard's J. Michael Griggs, who's created a number of striking sets for Sugan, as well as settings for the ART and other regional repertory theatres, to work his magic creating a complex and compact unit thrust set, complete with a flowing stream that figures prominently in the symbolic action. Certain areas become homebase for several of the nine women whose stories are woven into the script.
There's a chair up stage center for Huda, an old leftist who's been living in London since the '30s, whose answer is Scotch, neat. The stream is the focus of Mulaya, a professional mourner, who starts the performance by bringing old shoes to the river to throw them in so their onus may be carried away. The woman whose story is most completely told is Layal, a painter whose portraits of Saddam hang in the national gallery, in the company of her landscapes which contain disguised female nudes. She survives by cooperating with the regime and escapes when her house is bombed. The first long monologue is from Amal, a Bedouin, detailing her three failed marriages-- mostly abroad--in search of love, one of the play's constant themes.
There are brief cameos by a nameless doctor alarmed by the increase in deformed births and a teenager confined to her house for fear she might be kidnapped for ransom or worse, who remembers her father taken away by Saddam's police. A widow who lost her entire family when the local bombshelter instead of a nearby command center was hit by a bunker buster now gives guided tours pointing out the sooty silhouettes of those incinerated in the subsequent fire. An American of Iraqi descent clutches her rosary watching CNN videos of such bombing, worried to death over the fate of her relatives still in Baghdad. And finally, Nanna, a scavenger, sells remnants of the destruction to survive. Scenes with various of these characters alternate more often as the show progresses, culminating in a poetic fugue which intermingles scraps from earlier scenes.
Unlike other recent monodramas, "9 Parts of Desire" has no multicharacter scenes. The text is monologue addressed to the unseen interviewer, including the nameless American woman, who may be taken as Raffo herself, who was living and working in NYC on 9/11. Each woman returns to themes of family and lost love, complicated by the terrible state of her country, generally with a feeling of helplessness. Griggs' set is backed by hanging gauze panels which take various stylized gobos to help identify particular locations, all of which are coordinated with Rob Cordella, the Lyric's master electrician's elegant light design. The cyc is also backlit in various shades at times. The sound design is once again a superior effort by Dewey Dellay. Emerson's Rafael Jaen has provided a range of easily donned accessories, from burkas to headscarves to couture, worn over a basic black ensemble, which links and defines the characters. Raffo's 90 minute piece is perhaps more relevant to the current situation than David Hare's "Stuff Happens", now having its New England premiere with Zeitgeist at the BCA. Both are important indictments of how the Administration has handled things in Iraq, but "9 Parts of Desire" can be generalized to illumine suffering worldwide due to warfare, in South America, in Africa, and in Southeast Asia.