For those seeking insight into the fraught subject of American-Iranian relations, the Lincoln Center Festival was bound to end in frustration. Though three different companies of Iranian artists were in attendance, each production demanded to be engaged on its own terms. Believe it or not, these artists have more on their minds than our own Middle Eastern ignorance and anxiety. For those curious about the variegated palette of Iranian theater, however, the festival provided a rare opportunity to explore both traditional and avant-garde forms. The experience left me more deeply appreciative of the cultural distinctiveness of the offerings while paradoxically more assured of theater’s strange capacity to transcend boundaries—even those as heavily patrolled as the ones separating East from West.
Art that endures dissolves categories. That’s certainly the case for Ta‘ziyeh, the traditional, multipart music drama that traces the founding of the Shiite branch of Islam through the 680 A.D. Battle of Kerbala. An 18th-century work with roots in a 16th-century ritual procession, Ta’ziyeh (which means “mourning”) conveys in epic fashion the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Three segments were chosen out of some 200, each presented on a different night in Farsi (with plot summary offered in the program), and none taking longer than 90 minutes to unfold. A Fellini-like band of trumpets and drums kept the mood quick and lively.
The Ta’ziyeh of Hor involves the warrior Hor’s conversion from being the enemy of Hussein to his martyred protector. The Ta’ziyeh of the Children of Moslem follows the protracted slaughter of two young orphan boys whose father was Hussein’s cousin. The Ta’ziyeh of Imam Hussein dramatizes the eventual murder of Hussein, culminating in his burial by a fiercely devoted lion. Though there were gaps in the overall narrative that only a modest percentage of the audience could fill in, the stories have a biblical sweep, simplicity, and violence that seemed etched in a universal present tense.
While unique in its aesthetic blend of equestrian theatrics, operatic melodrama, folkloric humor, and pictorial catechism, the Ta’ziyehs brought to mind an array of disparate references, from medieval passion plays and Shakespearean history to the 20th-century experiments of Peter Brook and Reza Abdoh. Directed by Mohammad Ghaffari, the productions have a communal accessibility that stems more (at least in the context of Lincoln Center) from the sheer momentum of the saga than from any theological implication. Obviously the religious participation that normally punctuates these performances was less animated, but the work overcame any hurdles of remoteness through the timeless power of persuasive storytelling.
Though the performance style often seems informal, the all-male cast has undergone lifelong training in everything from Persian music and poetry to fencing and horseback riding. Of special note in the expert ensemble are Alaeddin Ghassemi, who sings the heroic part of Hor with an impassioned tenor, and Hassan Nargeskhani Deligani as the resonant-voiced Hussein marching stoically to his sacred death.
Vaguely inspired by the 12th–century Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, Logic of the Birds marks the collaboration of several Iranian-born, American-based artists, most notably video artist Shirin Neshat, filmmaker and writer Shoja Azari, and composer-performer Sussan Deyhim. The multimedia production (which had a run at the Kitchen last season) distinguishes itself by the way it integrates theater, dance movement, film, and music in such a way that no one medium is allowed to dominate. The virtuosic élan of Western scenographers like Robert Wilson and Robert Le-page looms large.
The interdisciplinary sophistication, however, isn’t matched by an integrated vision. Suggestive yet illogical imagery of refugees wandering an apocalyptic landscape never coalesces into substantive reality. But though the piece may be ethereal to a fault, it has a sensual power that haunts. Special kudos to Deyhim, whose mystical voice and operatic presence lend the spectral piece the ballast missing from the overall conception.
Another genre-blurring theatrical innovation, The Mute Dream (or Gonge Khab Dideh), comes from the Iranian company Theatre Bazi, though it could just as easily have been born out of the Performing Garage or Ontological Theater. Two women sit at opposite ends of a long wood table—one donning aviator goggles and a chador, the other a commedia beak. In between them squats a hyperactive, real-life duck. With grunts and moans, the cast recasts moments from William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson, and Peter Handke’s Kaspar—a mélange of Western texts that wouldn’t automatically suggest themselves for cross-cultural deconstruction.
Incorporating a soundscape that is every bit as eclectically Western as the dramatic sources, the production amounts to a surreal and sadistic enactment of cultural indoctrination and control. But while the set is reminiscent of Richard Foreman’s mortuary wit, the acting lacks the physical precision needed to pull off this wordless meditation. Stage pictures come into focus but rarely penetrate with meaning—a shortcoming that renders The Mute Dream as evanescent as yesterday’s nightmare.
Yet though the Ta’ziyeh may appear more compellingly modern than the two willfully avant-garde pieces, the festival’s Iranian bill collectively challenges us to enter its foreign worlds not as consumers on a cultural raid, but as wanderers into lands that are every bit as strange and familiar as our own. If only the president could have been required to attend.