By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The thriller that gets its Alberta premiere Friday at the Backstage Theatre takes us to a tense world where “freedom” reverberates at a frequency very different from our own. The disparity between its application to men and to women is dramatic. And so is the separation of public and private life.
Welcome to Iran. AuTash Productions, a new indie theatre based here and named for the Farsi word for “fire,” takes us there.
The title character of Anahita’s Republic is a wealthy and accomplished woman of business who refuses to wear the hijab. She decides to build her own republic, “where she can dress how she wants, speak how she wants, and have all the liberties she’s always dreamed of,” as playwright Hengameh E. Rice puts it. “And she manipulates her brother to do things for her” out in the world — because as a man he can.
Hengameh E. Rice is actually a writing duo: one is Iranian-born, the other from Edmonton. And their preference, in these complicated times, is for the collective designation. “It’s female-focused,” says the Iranian partner, “to show the impact the regime has had on Iranian women…. But it’s not a political play; it’s a very human play.”
There is heightened global awareness of the fight for women’s rights in Iran — witness the protests world-wide that attended the terrible fate of 22-year-old Mahsa Amina in 2022 at the hands of the Iranian morality police for wearing her hijab improperly. But the struggle goes back generations.
“I’ve lived here most of my life,” says the Iranian half of Hengameh E. Rice, who emigrated to Edmonton with her family in 1978. Her mom got accepted to do a PhD in economics at the U of A, just before the Islamic revolution of 1979 that made the hijab mandatory. “I’ve kept my Iranian identity separate from my Edmonton/Canadian identity,” she says. It’s never been easy to explain to people “just how defiant and brave Iranian women are.”
A turning point for her was the 2009 election, 30 years after the revolution. There was widespread hope of Iranians for a moderate candidate and a new age of civil liberty, “a regime to free Iran from its isolationism, and give women more rights.”
She went back to Iran to vote, “and there was dancing in the streets…. Then all hell broke loose the next day as the results came back and it became clear the election had been rigged by ultra-conservative forces. “People demonstrated, millions protested in Azadi Square (ironically, it translates as “Freedom Square”) in Tehran. “We were at the university and we couldn’t leave.” A week later, the day she and her mother finally left, Neda Agha Soltan was killed, a 26-year-old just going to visit a friend. “Those memories haunted me for a long time.”
Anahita’s Republic was born in that haunting. “I had a story in my head.” And every visit back to Iran reinforced her commitment to telling it. “I had to wear a hijab; as a woman in that world I was constantly told that I had to be very careful how I acted…. No man gets harassed in that way.”
She wasn’t a playwright, but her Hengameh E. Rice (and real-life) partner, a veteran writer who’d worked at ACCESS TV, was. They met at Walterdale. And she “just got the theatre bug.”
The Edmonton half of the pair — the Rice half — says the play started with “a long one-person monologue, with six or more characters all played by one person…. We crunched it together.” Now the play has four characters, two men and two women, including Anahita and her brother Cyrus. “And the balance of power shifts constantly,” in ways that reflect “gender, generational, and class conflict.”
They acquired the services of the distinguished Canadian director/dramaturge/ actor Brian Dooley, who’s headed the Citadel’s new play development program and became the artistic director of L’UniThéâtre for a time (he’s now Montreal-based). He organized the first workshop of the play, and encouraged them to continue.
“They were passionate. And dogged!” Dooley says of the play’s history that includes a workshop at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, the Stratford Festival 2022 writers’ retreat, and a Toronto production from Bustle & Beast directed by Brenley Charkow. When Hengameh E. Rice asked him to direct the production of Anahita’s Republic that Edmonton will see, his first reaction was “you do know I’m an old white guy, right?”
He’s experienced Iran in person, twice. In 2010 he was at Fajr, Iran’s venerable international theatre festival (where Nassim Soleimanpour, creator of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, was his interpreter). Later he led mask workshops for men and women, an all-ages crowd, in Iran. “Nobody was wearing hijabs,” he says. “The hijab as metaphor for the desire for freedom … that interested me about the world of the play.”
He found the the premise on which Anahita’s Republic is built, the gap between public and private lives in Iran, real and fascinating. “The secrecy, the deceit…. It’s what they have to do to survive, and get things done.” The covert smuggling operation, the family business that Anahita runs, is “absolutely real,” he says. “The interaction between female and male characters, the way they share status, and exchange it in order to move forward….”
“The big question,” says Hengameh E. Rice, “is who do you trust?” And after all, that’s a question, as Dooley adds, “that resonates beyond the world of the play, in this age of disinformation, AI, surveillance….”
The action of the play, and the explosive question of trust, is triggered when a woman wearing a chador comes to the gate of Anahita’s headquarters, bearing a dangerous secret. Dooley calls it “a suspenseful drama.” Hengameh E. Rice calls it “a very entertaining play.”
“When you say you’re going to Iran, people always say ‘isn’t that dangerous?’,” says the playwright as Dooley nods. But there’s so much more to it, as they both point out: the history, the ancient culture, “the bravery of the people, their warmth, their honesty.” Persian hospitality is storied, and in the absence of bars and the attendant aspects of Western culture, theatre has a crucial importance. “It’s such an old country, and the people are fascinating.”
“In Anahita, you see a woman fighting for change in her country,” says the playwright. “She’s not leaving her country; she’s fighting to live in her country…. And women are the engine of change,” she says, pointing to the Woman Life Freedom movement. “It’s run by the younger generation, the 20- 25- 30-year-olds. This regime is all they’ve ever known. And they’ve had had enough!”
“It’s very important to tell the story. The news will only tell you so much….”
Theatre: AuTash Productions
Written by: Hengameh E. Rice
Directed by: Brian Dooley
Starring: Roya Yazdanmehr, Jennie George, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Michael Peng
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through June 4