Reviewed by Judy Richter
Khaled Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner," was a best seller that was made into a popular movie. Now it has become a stage play, adapted by Matthew Spangler, an assistant professor of performance studies at San Jose State University, and being given its world premiere by San Jose Repertory Theatre. Those who have read the book say it's a fairly faithful adaptation.
For someone like me who hasn't read the book or seen the movie, it's a fascinating, multi-faceted look at the past 30-plus years of the history and culture of Afghanistan as well as an exploration of friendship and of father-son relationships. Most of all, it's the story of one man's journey from a youthful act of cowardice to an adult search for forgiveness and atonement.
Most members of the 12-person cast portray a variety of characters. The only exception is Barzin Akhavan, who plays Amir, the central character. During the first act, he serves as narrator, relating the experiences of his boyhood in Kabul from 1973 to 1976. In the second act, he's the adult Amir, taking part in the action, which is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pakistan and Afghanistan between 1981 to 2002. By then he was living in Fremont, Calif., just across the bay from San Jose. That's where he and his father, along with thousands of other Afghan refugees, settled after fleeing repression and violence in their native country. Today Fremont has the largest community of Afghanis in the nation.
The plot concerns the close boyhood friendship between Amir (Craig Piaget as the boy), son of a wealthy businessman and a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, and Hassan (Lowell Abellon), his servant and son of his father's servant. Hassan and his father, Ali (James Saba), are members of a much lower social class, the Hazaras. Both boys are motherless, and both are about the same age. Despite their class differences, they're close friends. They're also a team when it comes to kite-flying contests, a popular pastime in Kabul. Amir flies his kite with the assistance of Hassan, who also retrieves the kites that Amir downs. He's the kite runner. Their relationship changes one fateful day when a teenaged bully, Assef (Adam Yazbeck), and his two sidekicks beat and sodomize Hassan while Amir watches from a hiding place, unwilling and unable to intervene.
Hassan continues to serve Amir, but their friendship is strained. Unable to face Hassan, Amir campaigns to have his somewhat distant father, Baba (Thomas Fiscella), send Hassan and Ali away, but the two leave of their own accord. Soon Amir and Baba leave, too, in order to escape the violent political upheavals in their country. Once they've settled in Fremont, Amir marries another Afghan refugee, Soraya (Rinabeth Apostol). Unable to have children of their own, they decide to adopt. Eventually, Amir returns to Afghanistan to try to adopt Hassan's orphaned son, Sohrab (also played by Abellon). Complications arise, including an encounter with the bully Assef, who now is part of the ruling Taliban.
Despite the complexities of the plot, this adaptation is easy to follow, thanks to Spangler's adaptation and David Ira Goldstein's sensitive direction. The simple set is designed by Vicki Smith with lighting and projections by David Lee Cuthbert, costumes by Kish Finnegan and sound by Scott Edwards. The production is accompanied by composer and tabla player Salar Nader, who sits off to the side of the stage. For the most part, the acting is outstanding. Besides those mentioned, principals include Gregor Paslawsky as Rahim Khan, Baba's longtime friend; and Demosthenes Chrysan as General Taheri, Soraya's father. One exception is that Yazbeck seems to have limited range as the bully, Assef. Akhavan, who is onstage during most of the action, is terrific except in the scene where he's an adult and praying for the survival of young Sohrab. At this point his fervor borders on hysteria.
It appeared that many Afghanis, some of them in traditional garb, were at the opening night performance. The play also has proved so popular at the box office that it has been extended for a week -- and deservedly so. It's fascinating and thought-provoking theater.