Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"9 Parts of Desire" is a powerful and important evening of theatre, providing us deep insight into the lives of a diverse group of contemporary Iraqi women, and allowing us an intimately human perspective on a culture under siege. Especially at a time when the news media practically forces us to think of Iraq only in strategic or geopolitical terms, it is the unique gift of theatre to bring us this vivid and moving engagement with actual lives and real experience. Well-directed by Joanna Settle, this is a vital contribution to our understanding of Iraq in general, and the cost of war for women in particular.
As a dramatic text, this one-woman show, a sequence of inter-related monologues, lacks an over-riding structure and thematic development, but as an authentic experience with the immediate stories and personalities of women we most often know only by their nationality, it is utterly engaging. Najla Said moves from one character to another with slight adjustments of costume pieces and shifting positions on stage, as well as dialect and vocal character inflections. While all are distinctive and clearly delineated, they are not equally well-developed, nor equally compelling.
Layal is an artist who paints female nudes, and while using friends and associates as her models, she says that it is always her own body that she paints. The strongest and most intriguing character in the play, she is representative of that conflict in modern Middle-Eastern women between cultural identity and the desire to be contemporary, between their beings and their bodies, their public expression and their private identity. When we learn later that she is killed by American bombs, it clearly represents the literal destruction of an emerging self-image, the silencing of a cultural voice.
Another woman, so embittered that only endless amounts of alcohol can numb her pain, listens to the imagined explosions in another place, and we understand that it is not just a single woman, but a nation and a history being assaulted and abused. Her tales of torture and inhumanity are terrible and horrific, excessively ghastly, except that they so vividly remind us that there is no depth to which human cruelty cannot sink. Another professional woman, a doctor, relates her own horror stories of children wearing plutonium-tipped bullets as talismen, and infants being born with two heads. The environmental pollution and human disfigurement are equally emblematic of the poison and obscenity of war.
A wonderful old Bedoin woman, as expansive in her vitality as she is in her body, blends ancient street culture with her own marital discord, her difficult and equally ancient and even more impoverished quest for a loving relationship. A young American Iraqi can only watch on CNN as her homeland is turned upside down, and then bitterly marvel when her overseas family makes extraordinary effort to contact her following the Trade Towers falling, worrying for her well-being as they ignore their own peril. There is the delightful character of a young girl who dances to 'N Sync and only wants to be young and modern, and who finds herself literally in the dark when the power goes out again, and the music stops. Then, she can only amuse and reassure herself by fondling the pistol her family keeps for protection.
All of these women exist in the performance of Ms. Said, and there is much to commend her versatility and skill. In this sort of montage, however, there really needs to be a complete transformation between each character, and too often I felt like it was the costume, or the accent, or carefully selected gestures that drew the distinctions of the individuals, rather than fully realized personalities. The exquisite set by Antje Ellermann becomes a character in itself, melding ruined architecture with elegant suggestions of art and culture, intricate frescoes with cold blocks of broken concrete, swaths of colorful cloth and the icy glow of a television. Within that disrupted, chaotic scene, the stories of these women were visceral and vivid.
Where the show falls short, however, is in the script and its failure to cohere all of these stories and elements into a single, thoroughly integrated statement. One suspects that playwright Heather Raffo wanted to create a montage, using the shattered elements of these diverse individual's broken lives to assemble a portrait of Iraqi women today. Instead, it feels more like a string of beads, joined by a common thread, but not equally sized and always separated from each other. "9 Parts of Desire" is certainly not a masterful play, but it is deeply felt, complex and emotionally powerful, and a vital contribution to our understanding of Iraq, of women in wartime, and of America's uninvited place in that nation's long and painful history.