Reviewed by Judy Richter
There's no shortage of news about Iraq nowadays, but most of it concerns the U.S. invasion, the insurgency, the roadside bombs, the trial of Saddam Hussein, the efforts to form a democratic government. Seldom does the American public hear about how everyday Iraqis feel about the situation, and almost never does it hear how Iraqi women feel about it. Playwright Heather Raffo fills some of that void with her one-woman play, "9 Parts of Desire," being staged by Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the direction of Joanna Settle.
Raffo has been performing in the work since it premiered in 2003 in Edinburgh, Scotland, but the Berkeley Rep production is the first to feature someone else, Mozhan Marnˆ¾, who portrays nine women ranging from a teenager who loves American music to an aged street peddlar. Together they tell a story of a country ravaged first by a brutal dictator and then by war, a country where women once enjoyed equal rights but now face fear and oppression.
One recurring character is Layal, an artist who survived by painting giant portraits of Hussein but also painted small nudes of women. One of those smaller pictures is what inspired Raffo, who was visiting relatives in Iraq, to create what became her play. She's an American whose father is Iraqi. Another character who appears only once is the Doctor, an obstetrician, who has just delivered a deformed baby to a mother who dies. The Doctor says that birth defects and cancer are rampant in the country after the use of chemicals and bullets tipped with depleted uranium during the first U.S. invasion of Iraq. Another woman, Umm Gheda, lost her entire family when a bomb destroyed the bomb shelter where they had taken refuge.
It's a powerful work brought to life by Marnˆ¾'s memorable performance. With the merest change of costume accessories, she transforms herself physically and vocally into these nine distinct personalities. It's quite a feat for this young actress, a 2005 graduate of the Yale School of Drama's MFA program. The 90-minute production, staged without intermission, is enhanced by Antje Ellerman's wreckage-strewn set, Kasia Walicka Maimone's costumes, Peter West's lighting and Obadiah Eaves' sound, complete with sirens and bombs.