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Imagination Dead Imagine

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

21 Feb 2011 17:44Comments
35364_r[1].jpegA visiting Faust-Fantasy suggests flights of fancy often grounded in Iran.

[ theater ] The 29th Fajr International Theater Festival concluded in Tehran on Sunday. Eighteen plays from Iran, Italy, Germany, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and South Korea were entered in the featured international section, known as the Eight-Day Competition. Among the works presented by Iranian directors, there was an Antigone written and directed by Homayoon Ghanizadeh -- I described his production last year of Albert Camus's Caligula in "Caligula in Tehran." Others included Letters to Thebes, written by Mohammad Charmshir and directed by Siamak Ehsaei; The Clouds behind the Throat, written and directed by Reza Gouran; Rationing the Cock's Feathers for Mourning, written and directed by Ali Narges Nejad; Men Aren't Allowed to Enter, written by Arash Abbassi and directed by Katayoon Feiz Marandi; Strange Creatures, written and directed by Reza Servati; and The Sale of a Refractory Soul, written and directed by Ebrahim Posht Koohi.

Among the six foreign productions in the competition, there was the German Pandora 88, directed by Wolfgang Hoffman, Andrew Dawson, and Sven Till; Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, directed by Do-Wan IM of South Korea; and The Passion of Trojan Women, written and directed by Italians Salvatore Tramacere and Antonio Pizzicato.

The Fajr International Theater Festival offers a unique opportunity for Iranians to meet artists from abroad. And passionate theater students participate in all these events.

Eight specialized workshops were held alongside the festival: the provocative Italian director Romeo Castellucci led a workshop in stage direction; the Canadian Daniel Brooks worked on both acting and directing; the British Simon Edwards taught clowning techniques; two German artists, Constanze Fishbeck and Daniel Koether, organized a workshop about video art in Tehran; and French director Jean-Louis Martinelli worked on acting techniques with ten actors he selected himself.

Along with this international dimension, the festival also allows regional groups and their young participants to demonstrate their abilities and meet other theater artists. The best plays from the Iranian provinces were selected and brought to the festival.

Besides the foreign productions in the Eight-Day Competition, there were other European productions in the festival. Notably, the internationally renowned German director Peter Stein brought his Faust-Fantasy, whose text is drawn from the first part of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's Faust. Stein himself performed this monologue version, in collaboration with pianist Giovanni Valetti. Their interpretation of the Faust myth evoked the 18th-century melodrama form. This genre has virtually nothing to do with the American melodramatic style of the 20th century. In the older, German mode, music and text are strongly linked. The play is recited, characters are mimed, and music expresses the atmosphere as well as emotions.

In the first part of the tale, we are introduced to Faust, a scholar who has spent his entire life in studious pursuit of universal knowledge. As the years pass, he realizes the impossibility of ever attaining such a goal. Abandoning his last illusions, he decides to commit suicide. The demonic Mephistopheles appears and offers to fulfill all his desires on earth in exchange for which Faust will give him his soul to be taken to Hell. Faust accepts the offer. He then meets Margarete, a pure and innocent girl. They fall in love. After a series of tragedies including the deaths of Margarete's mother and brother, she murders the illegitimate child she bears Faust. She is imprisoned and sentenced to death. Faust attempts to save her, but she refuses to escape and looks instead for God's forgiveness.

The music in Stein's version, by the contemporary Italian composer Artura Annecchino, was both delicate and aggressive. The production as a whole seemed to be structured around Faust's theme, a haunting, nostalgic melody. According to Stein, "This Faust-Fantasy is a concerto for voice and piano." The pianist plays a few themes, which are followed by Faust's monologue. Then a few other themes announce Mephistopheles's monologues, followed by a dialogue between Margarete and Faust, and a final sorrow.

Even though I had the chance to attend Stein's work in Europe, I never had the opportunity to see him on stage. His profound voice and charismatic presence were riveting. He performed in German, but there were subtitles in Farsi.

This production was a beautiful gift to the Iranian audience. However, it seems that they didn't enjoy it much. Some people even left during the performance. The applause at the end was not very warm, and I wondered why the audience didn't appreciate it. It was not due to some lack of comprehension. Rather, it was the chemistry between the audience and this Faust that didn't work out.

I started asking around among the actors, directors, and others in attendance. I should make clear that the festival audience is young and most of them are intellectuals and artists. The theater world in Iran is a small community and everybody knows one another. The responses I obtained were interesting. People did enjoy the production to some extent, but they said its "German atmosphere" was too heavy for them. The dramatic form was very intimate and Stein's presence, very powerful. The impact of his performance might simply have been too strong for this audience. And the dark, fantastic ambiance he created was certainly too painful for them.

A young assistant director told me that she was too depressed for such an artistic event. "Since the 2009 presidential elections, we are all depressed. Even though we don't show it to one another, we don't laugh from the bottom of our heart anymore," she said. "And watching such a heavy production is beyond our temper. We just can't handle it."

I could understand her point, but I didn't have the feeling that Iranian plays were more joyful or even lighter than Stein's Faust-Fantasy. So what was wrong with this play? Could it be the use of the German language that was problematic? Most festival goers attend foreign plays and are used to watching foreign films as well. It seemed to me that the melodramatic form was the main issue. Stein was narrating the text, the music was commenting on the action -- and such a production puts relatively unusual demands on the audience's imagination. Without a set, costumes, and conventional acting, the Iranian audience had to imagine an unfamiliar, mythical, German realm and I'm not sure it had the ability to do it.

Maintaining access to an imaginary life in Iran is a constant struggle. Even though many young people succeed in the effort, the imaginary is still often effectively limited, constrained within boundaries imposed by government policy. Yet the youth, rather than surrendering to those constraints, have been able to create their own mythologies. And my following articles will relate some of those.

Click here to see the theater festival winners.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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