By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
War can be survived (humans are extraordinarily resilient). But the experience can never be un-experienced.
You’ll be carrying that thought with you out of the theatre when you see 9 Parts of Desire, the remarkable documentary/play The Maggie Tree has brought to the Varscona stage.
9 Parts of Desire is a nine-character testimonial of oppression, brutality and carnage in a haunting, and haunted, part of the world. It was created by the Iraqi-American actor Heather Raffo from a decades’ worth of interviews of Iraqi women of every age and perspective after the first Gulf War, and it debuted in 2003, at the time of the second.
So you’re bound to wonder, in advance, whether this is art as artifact. But you don’t need special heat-seeking sensors to feel the stepped-up topicality in a week when America is bombing Syria. Reality is competitive that way.
9 Parts of Desire remains a gutsy choice for a Canadian collective 2017, to be sure, as The Maggie Tree seems to have realized in both casting the production and the ancillary program of panel discussions about “diversity in theatre,” accessibility, and the ownership of stories.
No, there aren’t nine Iraqi actors in Vanessa Sabourin’s production. There is, however, a carefully deliberate assortment of ethnic backgrounds and colours (including one white, one black, and one aboriginal performer), amongst the actors and onstage musicians. And the production is staged physically by Sabourin to suggest that, in this country of immigrants, refugees, and Indigenous cultures — where the word “multi-cultural” is as watered down as “fusion” in the culinary industry — oppression is a shared residue, part of a Canadian’s baggage, a connective tissue to something ancient.
As a woman steps forward, to deliver a monologue, the group onstage watches, and folds the woman sympathetically back into the group tableau when it ends, no matter what perspective she’s expressed. The movement and pattern of survivors onstage implies a kind of shared female experience of the brutalized that’s more powerful than political differences.
“Underneath my country there is no paradise of martyrs; there is only water,” says the professional mourner (Christine Frederick) who offers a kind of invocation to the dead at the outset as she drops old shoes, “worn soles,” into the river.
Alison Yanota has designed and lit in an eerie glow a kind of cave that turns out to be the burned-out hollow of a building, with rebar hanging from the ceiling.
The monologues seem variable in the quality of the writing. But they do have a cumulative impact, in committed performances by Sabourin’s cast. Nadien Chu delivers a scorcher as a London-educated doctor who’s returned to her home in Iraq, appalled by the horrifying birth defects and cancers she sees in her patients.
One fierce old cosmopolite ex-Commie (Patricia Darbasie), drinking scotch in London, muses on the ironies of history as she details the horrific three-decade savagery of the Saddam Hussein regime. That “American-supported blood bath” made her, “against all my beliefs,” a supporter of the war in Iraq. But look where that disastrous invasion led? as she points out sadly. “I don’t believe any more in revolution.”
A Bedouin woman (engagingly played by Nimet Kanji) searches for peace and joy in her love life, in a checkered marital history that includes a lot of fleeing.
The youngest character, a fretful teenager (Rebecca John) housebound since the American invasion, yearns for American pop music, identifies bombs by the sound, and collects bullets as bling. The oldest (Alison Wells) is a street peddler, a survivor of 23 revolutions, who is rueful about the objects looted from museums, but sells them anyway. “I have to eat.”
The most conflicted, and therefore dramatic, character is the artist Layal (Amena Shehab), a worldly, self-loathing collaborator who paints official Saddam and co portraits, but resists the dehumanizing force of the regime by painting nudes.
There’s even an American (Nicole St. Martin), disintegrating with emotional anxiety about her Iraqi family half a world away. “I should go to the gymn!” she interrupts her own anti-war commentary. “People work out to the war. On three channels.”
But perhaps the most affecting portrait, in a performance of eerie quiet by Natasha Prasad, is the caretaker at the Amiriya shelter, bombed by the Americans in 1991. It’s a mass Iraqi grave, full of ghosts, she tells us, pointing to walls embedded with the hair and skin of the “vaporized.” She has taken the name of her young daughter as a kind of continuity beyond the grave.
The dead are not lost. That’s what haunting means. And the haunted are among us in this country.
9 Parts of Desire
Theatre: The Maggie Tree in association with Theatre of the New Heart
Written by: Heather Raffo
Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin
Starring: Amena Shehab, Nicole St. Martin, Nadien Chu, Rebecca John, Alison Wells, Christine Frederick, Nimet Kanji, Patricia Darbase, Natasha Prasad
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through April 15
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)