Comments by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
Okay, before you read what I have to say, you must click HERE and read what creator and performer Heather Raffo has to say about her work. The on her Web site is so concise that either to quote it or to try to restate it in my own words would be redundant.
So, are you finished? Good. Now you may proceed.
I was very excited to have a chance not only to see 9 Parts of Desire, which has inched its way into theatrical legend since its first performance in Edinburgh in 2003, but to see it performed by Heather Raffo. She and director Joanna Settle had just finished a week’s artists’ residency at MASS MoCA paring the play down to be more portable.
I had never conceived of a one-person play as a big production, but apparently 9 Parts of Desire was, with a set that took four days of technical preparation and included a river large enough for Raffo to submerge herself in. Here the river was replaced with plastic jugs of water, which had a scary, toxic look to them, but placed in the cavernous Hunter Center, which was packed to the gills with theatre fans who knew a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity when they saw one, it only looked like an intimate show plopped down in a big venue. If I owned any opera glasses, I would have benefited from bringing them along.
That is undoubtedly the hazard of touring any show. Some venues are going to be more suitable than others. Just as Hubbard Hall was the perfect place to stage The Elephant Man, the Hunter Center was a terrible place to stage 9 Parts of Desire. It looked like an actor versus audience smack-down, with the audience clearly out-muscling Raffo. Since the Hunter Center is a black box space that can be reconfigured at will, I wonder why the audience was placed in more of a three-quarters round set-up, making everyone closer to the stage. I was quite high up in the bleachers and definitely felt at a physical and emotional remove from the performance.
But since until now 9 Parts of Desire was only able to be presented in large theatres, I am obviously not the first to have watched Raffo perform from a great distance. Again, I wonder why any one-actor show would choose to be presented that way is a mystery to me.
The whole point of seeing a show like 9 Parts of Desire is to be educated. The subject matter is going to be painful and difficult to hear and the laughs, if any, are going to be few and far between. You don’t go to a show like this to be entertained but to come away with a deeper knowledge and understanding of who the women of Iraq are and what challenges they face. A message like that is obviously more powerful when delivered at close range. The face-to-face visceral interaction between actor and audience is what makes live theatre a powerful tool for breaking through barriers of ignorance and religious and cultural differences. Why deliberately place distance between them? Without the intimacy the message might just as well be delivered on film or television.
Of course Berkshire audiences are awfully spoiled. I rarely see shows in houses that seat more than 500 people, and often I am close enough to the actors to count their freckles. Of course I grew up going to the theatre in big Broadway houses. When I was taken to my first Broadway show at the age of six I sat so far away from the stage (my parents didn’t want to have wasted big bucks on an expensive seat if I was going to poop out and demand to be taken home half-way through) that it looked like a large, live television set, although I was aware that there was no glass between me and the performers. I was still at an age when I believed there were tiny musicians inside the radio, but I knew that there was no one inside the television set and so I was intrigued by this new thing to which I was being exposed.
The show was Brigadoon and, knowing that it was live and real, I was fascinated by the stage magic used to make that whole town appear from and disappear into the mist.
Here the magic was all performed right before my eyes by Raffo, using some versatile costume pieces, and a few props. The area of the stage in which she performed each character seemed important too, but since that was what she and Settle had just spent the week reworking it was the weakest part of the show. Raffo obviously felt much less comfortable on her new set, designed by Antje Ellermann who created the original American set for the show, than she did in her old characters.
The characters, all Iraqi women, range in age from 14 to very elderly. They represent all stations of life. They are all fully human and each has a fascinating tale to tell. It is not easy to hear what they have to say – I found the doctor’s monologue particularly chilling – but Raffo makes each character sympathetic and easy to relate to. There is no strong anti-American sentiment expressed as this piece is intended bring English-speaking audiences closer their Iraqi sisters. There is also no on-stage depiction of the restrictions Islam places on women, which non-Islamic people find hard to understand and respect.
Raffo is a master of vocal inflection. None of her women sound the same, and she portrays at least ten different characters. The costumes by Kaisa Walicka Maimone are not only extremely versatile and flexible, but flattering to Raffo and revealing to westerners of the secrets of Iraqi dress.
9 Parts of Desire is a very noisy show. As Raffo runs from one characters’ position to the next, changing her costumes in mid-flight, the deafening sounds of a land a war are heard. Such noise in real life and in the theatre serves to heighten a sense of anxiety and insecurity which is essential to the world Raffo is creating and describing. Obadiah Eaves is credited with the sound design, which was no doubt well served by the state-of-the-art amplification system at MoCA.
Shows like 9 Parts of Desire should be compulsory viewing for all Americans, isolated as we are on our big island-continent, because they help drag us another few yards closer to understanding and making peace with other cultures. Certainly since we have had the audacity to invade, occupy and attempt to thrust our form of government on the Iraqi people, the least we can do is learn about them. Maybe if we had done so before we did all those other things we would not have gone about this business as badly as we did.
The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for mature teens and adults only. Go to Heather Raffo's's Web site for more information about the artist and her future projects. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007