By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Anahita’s Republic is a thriller set in a mysterious world of concealed faces and shadows, secret agents, secret police, hidden agendas. That world is contemporary Iran.
The playwriting duo of Hengameh E. Rice, one half Iranian and the other Edmontonian, have created a gripping and complicated story that takes us further and further into the subterranean cross-currents of a sophisticated society … where women have no rights. That’s the fascinating contradiction that drives the storytelling of Anahita’s Republic. It’s a rare insider view, and an opportunity not to be missed.
The hijab, a powerful symbol of compliance, is mandatory. Marriages are arranged, by men. The family is ruled, by men. Public life is orchestrated, and restricted, by men, who have a freedom only dreamed of by women.
Women are the insurrectionists against an oppressive regime, and widespread protests notwithstanding, their struggle for change is underground, conducted by networking. Smart, educated, and driven, Anahita (Roya Yazdanmehr) runs a successful import business from inside her luxurious villa prison, a tangible seminar in the working-from-within model. Since there’s no equality for her in the Republic, she’s made her own republic-within-a-republic where she roams defiantly, sans hijab and in a bathing suit.
Her agent in the world is her brother Cyrus, who’s something of a go-fer for Anahita’s business plan. “He is my chador,” as she says of her identity-concealing double life. When she says “my republic is not the kingdom of men,” she’s not taking some sort of religious side-swipe. She’s simply describing her regime. And, interestingly, it’s a harsh one, goal-oriented, that’s just not interested in her brother’s own dreams and happiness. It is a high price tag on single-mindedness.
The red alert catalyst is the arrival of a mysterious woman (Jennie George) in a chador and expensive sunglasses at Anahita’s gate. Is she who she claims to be? Is she to be trusted? An ally? A spy? Her appearance is an event that triggers suspicion, and demands wariness, interpretation, and response from everyone in the play. And the play bravely doesn’t shy away from wondering about Anahita herself, a fierce and contradictory figure who’s both heroic and repressive.
Brian Dooley’s production for the indie company AuTash (Farsi for “fire”) is noir-ish and atmospheric. His cast commits to a sense of high-alert urgency throughout. Whittyn Jason’s design picks up on that, the idea of layering in a dangerous world. It’s a succession into depth of panels, turned by human agency, that glow like stained glass, through which we discern shadowy movements.
In the end, the admirable ambitions of the storytelling to reveal a whole culture do overtake the plot, I think. The complications accumulate, and spread thinner and thinner, scattering impact in scenes that are harder to sustain. Anahita’s Republic sets about shedding light on every corner of private and public life in a mysterious country, including higher education, the family embedded in the state, foreign relations, ethnic prejudices in the big wide world. “I can swim here. I know the water. Everywhere else I’d drown,” says Anahita, who’s nothing if not decisive about life choices for other people.
Anahita’s Republic is a story you won’t know in advance, about people who are up against it, trying to make decisions in a never-ending state of emergency. A worthwhile theatrical expedition.
Brian Dooley’s production stars Roya Yazdanmehr, Jennie George, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Michael Peng. Running: at the Backstage Theatre through June 4. Tickets: fringetheatre.ca.