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Iran's Thriving Theater Scene

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

02 Jun 2010 14:342 Comments


Archive photo, February 2008, Street Theater at Iran Shahr by Mahyar via Flickr.

A decade ago, Iranian cinema was bringing the world unexpectedly beautiful images of the country. Directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi were celebrated in cultural circles across the globe. Today, as the golden age of Iranian cinema appears to have passed, it is Iranian theater's turn to be bold.

Tehran's theater houses are full and people wait in long lines to see the latest plays written and directed by the country's artists. Relative to the costs of other entertainment, theater is more expensive, if comparatively not as much as in the United States. A ticket costs anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 rials, roughly equivalent to US$10-15, around three times what it costs to see a movie. (A ticket to the posh Cinema Azadi, for instance, is 40,000 rials.) As has long been true, theatergoers in Iran tend to be members of the educated middle class. However, thanks to media interest in the arts, the general public hears a considerable amount about productions of new plays. Thus, while their audience might be limited, their impact is not.

Two plays this season that recall the social climate of the 1980s stand out for their audacity and originality. Investigating a Silent Party, staged at Iranshahr Theater Hall, is a truly experimental work whose creative team is connected to much of Iran's performing arts world. Playwright Atila Pesyani comes from an artistic family. His mother, Jamileh Sheykhi, was one of the most respected actresses in Iranian cinema. A 1982 graduate of the University of Tehran's School of Drama, he has directed 25 plays and acted in numerous movies and TV shows. His wife is also an actress, and their daughter is among the young talents in Iranian theater. The director, Reza Haddad, knows most of the actors in his talented cast since his days in drama school. At the same time as he runs an advertising agency, his work as a director has received strong notices.

The story concerns a party thrown by a group of young people in the house of one whose parents are away. We learn about the connections between the characters and their social backgrounds. One is a rich spoiled girl, another a working single woman who cares for her brother, a third a wealthy engineer in love with his assistant. He has a sister who seeks solace in drugs from a shattered family life and a deceitful father.

The main acts of the play are separated by silent scenes on different topics. One is dedicated to the memories of those killed in the war with Iraq. The performance by Pantea Panahiha in this scene is gripping. It commemorates the sacrifice and evokes the sorrow with gentle compassion. On three crosses in the middle of the stage, she tenderly hangs the tattered, blood-stained uniforms of those who were killed in the battle. In another scene, a girl paints a house with a chimney and flowers in the front yard. There is no paint, so she uses her own blood. The house is red, the walls, the windows, and the flowers. She sits down to live in this house drawn of her own blood and it seems she cannot find comfort or peace.

Multimedia is employed in several different scenes. The profiles of the characters are displayed on a curtain and their biographies are read. There is a live musical performance and a videotape segment. There are also vignettes in which Siamak Ansari sits at the center of the set and talks to the audience directly. He advises, "Well, do not fuss about the money you spent to come here. What else would you have been doing? Trying to get dates on Facebook?" The audience laughs loudly -- everyone knows that Facebook is officially filtered in Iran.

Ansari talks about the play, about growing up in the 1980s, when everything was banned -- music cassettes, video tapes. He remembers the King of Pop, as well: "They say Michael Jackson was a great man. Well, I can tell you we suffered a lot because of him. Hiding those large VHS tapes in our bellies, it was an awfully painful thing to do. Then we would go home to watch him dance. Poor us! If you did not know how to break dance, well you were not cool." People laugh and applaud. This is an aspect of life in Iran during the 1980s that is not often recalled, but it is an experience to which many can relate.

Investigating a Silent Party covers a remarkably broad range of topics in its depiction of life in the 1980s and early 1990s -- from poverty to women's issues, from war to social constraints, from emigration to repatriation to a country where social standards are not what one expected. And then it gathers all of its characters at one last supper to party...to forget. The party is unexpectedly interrupted and the guests, fearing the morality police, take a step into the darkness. Needless to say, the play might be inspired by true events.

The other notable new play, presented at City Theater's Chaharsou Hall, is The Skyless City, by Pouria Azarbayjani and directed by Kiumars Moradi. It tells the story of four women from the Middle East -- played by Fatemeh Taghavi, Setareh Pesyani, Nazgol Naderian, and Paneta Panahiha -- who attempt to escape various abuses, each reflective of broader conditions in their societies. Each puts her fate in the hands of human smugglers.

Alma is a Tajik girl from Afghanistan fleeing her clan's retribution for loving a Hezarah man. All she wants is to be happy with her fiancé. Affi is an Iranian woman who used to live in Sharjah. She is in love with Yunus from Pakistan. To be with him, she has committed a crime of passion, killing her abusive Arab partner. Since childhood, Firouzeh has been keeping secrets. She saw her father cheating with his secretary. Now she has witnessed a murder. She knows too much and is in danger of being murdered herself. Her father has brought her to the border, and paid the smugglers to take her to Paris. Nasrin is an orphan who seeks a better future in the City of Lights. Among them, she is the most experienced at looking out for herself. All four are trapped by "Yaroo" and his gang.

Alma declares, "Something tells me only one out of the four of us will see the streets of Paris." The women tell their stories -- Affi and Firouzeh through taped videos projected on a screen; Nasrin and Alma, in live performance.

Affi is killed in the sea by the smugglers; she is old and of no use to them. Firouzeh, a young educated physician from a wealthy family, has a nervous breakdown and commits suicide. At one point, she declares, "My head wants to explode. It has been keeping too many secrets. I just want to let it explode." Alma is sold for her body parts by "Yaroo" to a French clinic. Nasrin survives and reaches Paris. A passerby breaks the wall of a warehouse where she is kept captive.

An alumnus of the University of Tehran, Kiumars Moradi is becoming a familiar name in Iranian theater, noted for his use of multimedia and experimental techniques. He has directed a dozen plays and collaborated on several others as a production manager. He also is an author, with several books on the theater to his credit. In Skyless City, he takes full advantage of multimedia to compensate for a small set and to visualize the diverse locations of the story: the sea, the city, the rail station, and the abandoned warehouse where Alma and Nasrin are imprisoned by "Yaroo."

Though the play nominally concerns the Middle East in general, the viewer cannot help but draw parallels between actual events in Iran and the stories of these women. Firouzeh talks of a young man under her care in the hospital who wrote poetry. He was found dead and Firouzeh was asked to verify the cause as pneumonia. Was he a political prisoner deliberately murdered? Alma's story reminds the audience of ongoing honor killings, which are not limited o Afghanistan. Affi talks of being imprisoned to serve the desires of her partner, who sounds more like an owner. Nasrin talks of being confined to her room for endless days. She was not permitted to touch the snow in the winter or to venture beyond the walls of her orphanage. Is this a proxy for larger issues of freedom? No one can say for sure. In several interviews, Moradi has emphasized that the play addresses a global issue and a regional problem. Maybe that is why his play was given a stage license. However, the parallels with more immediate events are hard to ignore.

A new generation of directors is leaving their mark in Iranian theater. Haddad, Moradi, and Pesyani are noted for their ability to combine traditional and innovative approaches to dramatize social conditions experienced by a wide variety of characters and groups. The realization of their vision requires constant struggle, a ceaseless battle with red tape. Nonetheless, they have been able to bring new life to Iranian theater. One wonders if the fact that only a small number of Iranians are able to attend the theater has actually helped these artists stage their works. The venues where the plays described here were presented each accommodate about 150 people. At Investigating a Silent Party, many audience members sat on cushions on the floor. Most still believed the experience was worth it.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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This is awesome! Thanks Ali Chenar! I'm a huge fan of Iranian theater, I have seen some remarkable plays in little rooms, acted and written by unknown artists and students ... but which were breathtaking from start to finish!

Atila Pesyani is a great director, you are lucky to have seen this play!

Pedestrian / June 3, 2010 6:02 PM

Thanks for this article. The theatre scene of Iran is a rarely discussed or covered medium, particularly since theatre is difficult to export, unlike cinema.

I was in Tehra late 2009 and I saw "Horses at the Window" at Theathreshahr. I've seen plenty of plays in LA and NY and this show ranked as one of the best shows of I've ever seen. I was actually floored by the level of talent.

Arash / June 3, 2010 8:36 PM