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Theater | 'Ka': Dying for the Master

by DAN GEIST in New York

22 Mar 2011 06:44Comments
KaStatue.jpgIranian one-act making U.S. debut delivers harshest of metaphoric messages.

[ theater ] Ka is a short play about eternity -- which is to say, death. Most works of narrative art that concern death are really about dying, a subject with much broader dramatic possibilities. The three nameless characters, slaves in ancient Egypt, who appear in Ka are dying from first to last, but the play is not about dying because it is not centrally about them.

Making its American and English-language premiere as part of the Iranian Theater Festival at New York City's Brick Theater, Ka is the work of Tehrani playwright Siavash Pakrah, who wrote it in the wake of Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, the subsequent protests, and their violent repression. The central character in his play never appears. He is already dead. According to the traditions of his culture and faith, his death ordains that of the three characters who are portrayed. He is their owner, their lord, their guardian. He is the Master.

Ka is a stern play about death in the Egypt of the pharaohs -- which is to say, evil in the Iran of the Vali-ye Faghih, the Supreme Leader.

The works of popular Brazilian author Paulo Coelho are banned in the Islamic Republic, apparently because his Iranian editor participated in the demonstrations after the 2009 election...and tried to save the life of Neda Agha Soltan. Dancer Afshin Ghaffarian was officially barred, like all other Iranian dancers, from performing his art in his homeland. When he staged a modest protest against the regime at the end of a recital in Germany, he was effectively prevented from returning home. Filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof have each been sentenced to six years in prison -- counted among their criminal transgressions was Panahi's video library, including such films judged "obscene" as Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece The Bicycle Thief.

And yet Ka, as bitter and barely veiled a denunciation of the Islamic Republic's ruling ideology, both temporal and clerical, as might be imagined was allowed to premiere and run for four weeks at Tehran's state-sponsored Shahr Theater last spring. There are few depths more abyssal than the intellect of the professional censor, so it is an unfathomable mystery whether the flimsy scrim of the millennia-old Egyptian setting was deemed sufficient cover or if the decision was made that to take any steps against the play would have been to suggest that its depiction of a society in which common folk are sacrificed to maintain a grotesque monarchical death cult might have the slightest relevance to present-day Iran.

Pakrah's play has been brought to the United States in a production short on elegance but not in power. Amid a sparsely decorated space representing a chamber within a royal tomb, two men -- played by Damon Owlia and Josh Mertz -- and one woman -- played by Melissa Roth -- deny, defy, mimic, and hasten their all-too-evident fate. In contemporary Iran, fervent supporters of the regime among the masses are frequently referred to as "Basijis," whether or not they are registered members of the Islamic Republic's million-strong militia. In that light, the two men represent two different varieties of Basij mentality, whose pivotal distinction involves their respective appetites for violence. The play's climax involves the erasure of that distinction, in a transfer of onus whose irony is no less horrible for being swift and simple.

Indeed, from its title to its final lines, Ka is rich in such black ironies. In ancient Egyptian religion, the ka was the life force and that aspect of the soul to which the other elements gravitated after physical death. In Ka, death is nothing but the end. In the play's concluding moments, a slave evokes love and grandeur -- in exaltation of a void.

The force, unimpeachable, that sucks the characters into that void is the absent Master. The figure of a Master whose appearance is delayed or completely negated is a significant one in contemporary Iranian drama, both on stage and screen -- Rasoulof's The White Meadows provides an especially memorable example. More than the man himself who holds the office of Supreme Leader, the Master symbolizes the belief that the Iranian people require such a guardian, which has been at the very core of the country's ruling system for the past three decades. The Master's prolonged or complete absence symbolizes not only the Supreme Leader's absolute distance from democratic constraint, but also evokes the Hidden Imam, central to Shia Islam. Also known as the Mahdi, his anticipated reappearance after centuries of occultation to be earth's redeemer is the subject of the prayers of millions, a devotion the present regime has often found it convenient to encourage. In Ka, there is barely an exchange of dialogue without some mention of the Master, he looms over every choice and revelation, and virtually all of the characters' acts and emotions can be understood only within the framework of his power and the illusions that surround it.

Of the three, the woman alone resists the profession of absolute faith in the Master. Especially in her silences, Roth effectively conveys the moment-by-moment toll of the situation's depravity. These are crucial inflections amid the staging by director Gyda Arber, the festival's organizer, whose Ka is sixty stark minutes of hammer descending mercilessly to nail.


The Iranian Theater Festival continues at the Brick Theater through Saturday, March 26. Ka will be performed twice more, on Thursday and Saturday at 9 p.m.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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