Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul"is his first full-length play since the epic "Angels in America", a play that changed the face of American theatre. His enormous breadth of interest, combined with masterful theatricality is now turned to the complexity of the Middle-East. That it's so astoundingly topical is coincidence (the play was started two years before 9-11), but that it is so immediate and relevant has more to do with its humanity than its subject. This is a story of people in search of missing lives, and it is a keenly felt, deeply affecting drama, set in a locale that only emphasizes how alienated we all are from the world in which we live.
This production is based on revisions he did for the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, but it's still clearly a work in progress. He reportedly delivered a couple of dozen new pages the night before this opening. One begins to wonder if this has become a canvas on which he applies each day's new tints and shadings from that roiling part of the world. In any event, this is a huge and enormously complex drama.
The good news is that it has enough passionate intelligence and theatrical abundance to fill three good plays. The bad news is that it has too much material for a single play, and at nearly four hours, it begins to feel stretched and thin. It's an exhausting and fascinating journey, but badly in need of cutting and tightening, particularly the second and third acts. The fact that what could be cut is still vastly better than ninety percent of what we usually see from contemporary playwrights only makes it more difficult. Nonetheless, the script, as it's seen here, with a top-notch cast, impressively directed by Bartlett Sher, makes for a stunning theatrical experience.
The unusual structure of the play begins with an extended monologue (over an hour) by a quirky, verbose and isolated woman who is obsessed by an out of date guidebook to Kabul. At the end of her discourse she actually travels to Afghanistan, where she vanishes. The second and third acts trace the path of her dispassionate husband and alienated daughter as they search for the true story of her disappearance. We are embroiled in a rich mixture of cultures, languages, personal and political agendas, moral and ethical conflicts and compromises, and all manner of character revelation and personal unraveling. A major theme of this play is the corruption and disintegration of all institutions, political, social, marital and familial. Beyond that, I can't think of another play in which such huge questions of geopolitical and cultural relationships are so intimately connected with personal wars of identity and meaning.
As the play opens, we are in the neat, perfectly restrained study of the Homebody, who sits with a cup of tea at her side and spends the next hour exciting us with her esoteric, second-hand knowledge of Afghanistan. Ellen McLaughlin is simply brilliant. A twitter of obscure information and idiosyncratic, polysyllabic words, she cannot help but reveal herself as much as her beloved, exotic city of Kabul. A place where she's never been, never really known.
So too with her family, a husband so distant and inaccessible that she samples his anti-depressants "just to find out how he feels". Brilliantly overlaying a detailed history of Afghanistan with an equally complex and mysterious view of the woman's vast inner landscape, Kushner prepares us for everything to come in the story, and draws us into his intricate and astounding methods.
The Homebody's strange vocabulary, the use of those preposterously esoteric words attune our ears to a text which will incorporate French, German, English, Pashto and Dari--the Afghan version of Farsi, as well as Esperanto (an artificial, "universal" language), sometimes translated, often not. Her self-effacement, often even self-dismissal, illustrates that self-doubt is at the core of all lost integrity, for people, between peoples, for nations. Her conflicts in understanding others, whether ancient regimes or her own daughter, remind us that the search for missing persons important to our lives is a central story-line toward mapping the unexplored territories of our own consciousness. When, at the end of her spectacular monologue, she leaves to actually journey to Afghanistan, it is the manifestation of all she has learned, and all she has just taught us.
In the next two acts we follow her husband and alienated daughter as they try to uncover what has happened to the Homebody, if she has disappeared, been killed, or voluntarily begun a new life. The husband, related to us as so distant and disinterested, is now engaged, but passionately lost.Laurence Ballard is a man wandering through the shifting sands of existence, dehydrated by the blazing sun of his own inadequacy, searching for an oasis of forgiveness, of understanding, of resolution that will never appear. The daughter, whom the Homebody had dismissed as without conviction, appears in Kristen Flanders' interpretation as a tough, uncompromising, brave and intrepid fighter, willing to do anything to find her truth. It's a strong and vital role, giving the bereft family and the entire production a pulse and urgency it desperately needs. Especially given the life-sucking corruption of a British aid-worker, played with wretched and enervated accuracy by Simeon Moore.
Director Bartlett Sher has done a marvelous job of creating an Afghani population which is uniformly alien in its culture, and distinct in its individual types and social varieties. The mystic but affable poet, played marvelously by Ismail Basheyis a perfect mix of comfort and danger, and his charm is complex and compelling. I also admired the desperate Mahala, a woman who believes her only hope of a life is an escape fraught with danger. The role is gracefully played by Jacqueline Antaramian, The remainder of the cast brought a consistent authenticity to this world, both theatrical and political.
Scenic designer John Arnone, Lighting designer Justin Townsend, Sound designer Peter John Still and Costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward have expertly realized Sher's production concept. It emphasizes the pure theatricality of the staging (with lights visible in the wings, minimal set pieces, a huge sheet of green plastic that becomes an amorphous, shifting landscape beneath their feet) and the power of the words spoken, the ideas pursued.
This is a long and difficult journey, but it is immeasurably rich and rewarding. The play may still need work, but even in this imperfect state, it is one of the most amazing and unforgettable plays I've ever seen. I doubt that Seattle will see another play this season that will be as important, as complex, or as vital to our present consciousness as this. The cast and produciton are to be applauded, Bartlett Sher to be admired, and Tony Kushner to be held in that venerable place where we keep those writers who not only lead us into our future, but who show us the way through our present.
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