An uneasy double consciousness attends the able and purposeful world premiere of Benedictus now up at the Thick House whose plot concerns a back-channel effort to avert an impending US invasion of Iran. An international collaboration two years in the making, Golden Thread’s 10th anniversary season opener moves in uncanny lockstep with today’s headlines, which reflect the increasingly aggressive push from the outlaw centers of American power for yet another and wider war in the Middle East.
Benedictus (a project cocreated by Iranian director Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Israeli playwright Lotti Lerner, dramaturge and Theatre Without Borders cofounder Roberta Levitow, designer Daniel Michaelson, and Golden Thread artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian) opens with the secret reunion of two old school friends, one Muslim and one Jewish, both Iranian born, and both former activists in the politically broad-based mass uprising that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s CIA-installed dictator, in 1979. That revolution was, of course, eventually co-opted by the right-wing fundamentalist bloc under Ayatollah Khomeini, and since then Asher Muthada (Ali Pourtash) has emigrated to Israel and become an arms merchant, while his friend Ali Kermani (Al Faris) has become part of the reform movement within the Islamic republic.
A mere 72 hours before the United States plans to launch its secret attack, Kermani (wise to the countdown) has arranged the meeting with his old chum in the relatively neutral and secluded grounds of a Benedictine monastery. But Muthada arrives first. He’s a nervous ball of energy, and after shooing away his overly solicitous hostess (a nun played by Lisa Tateosian) he habitually overturns the decor in an effort to unearth any microphones. This first impression of supreme distrust amid a web of John le Carrétype espionage is belied, or at least made more complex, by the affectionate reunion of the two men. In the smooth and genial performances by Pourtash and Faris, Muthada immediately becomes expansive and dryly witty as Kermani, with a gentle air of cosmopolitan tact, arrives in his mullah’s robes and wire-framed glasses and inquires into his friend’s health.
In the conversation that follows they rehearse (in dialogue inevitably somewhat didactic but overall nuanced and unforced) the historic events that have passed through their lives, the betrayed promise of the revolution, the political machinations in each of their countries that play on external fears for internal gain, and so on. But there’s a more immediate concern and a deal to be brokered. Kermani, with his eye on the Iranian presidency, wants Muthada’s help in getting his peace proposal to the Americans in time to avert the bombing. For his part, Muthada wants his sister and her family ensured a safe exit from Iran, which is loath to let her go.
(The quasi-familial complexity of relationships here is inspired by a real-life incident: the 2005 chance meeting between thenIranian president Mohammad Khatami on whom Kermani is clearly based and thenIsraeli president Moshe Katsav, who were seated alphabetically beside each other at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and ended up exchanging pleasantries in Farsi, being compatriots from the same Iranian province.)
The tentative arrangement reached by Muthada and Kermani leads to an increasingly revealing but politically frustrating set of further meetings, some involving a US ambassador, Ben Martin (Earll Kingston). Martin Muthada and Kermani’s would-be channel to the US government and a fluent Farsi speaker who was among the hostages taken by Iranian militants at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 is a hard-drinking and hard-bitten man (played with engaging conviction) who turns out to have a close if fraught relation to Kermani, a moderating influence and protective presence during Martin’s captivity.
While the play’s premise is a look behind the headlines at the real interests and history roiling the Middle East, these behind-the-scenes encounters have depth of their own, as each character pursues and cloaks distinct ends that hopelessly entangle personal and geopolitical perspectives. As the clock ticks down, Kermani’s parallel effort to urge the intercession of the pope (one of several references made by the play’s title) seems as desperate as it is unexpected.
In the end, the plot’s impasse is another jarring reminder of the play’s real-world immediacy. Resisting any solution within the terms of the discourse represented by the three main characters, Lerner’s script suggests something about the incommensurable contradictions not of language (since everyone speaks the same one here) but of the discourse of the political world they share, which has become too degraded, too warped by the interests and logic of power, to grant any way out but catastrophe. This bleak circumstance doesn’t necessitate fatalism, however, but implicitly puts the onus for an alternative elsewhere. Our perspective as audience implicated in but also outside the power games that define the limits of the possible onstage allows perhaps for another set of possibilities for transcending the old discourse and inaugurating another, built (like the play itself) on new alliances across an overwhelmingly common interest. *
Through Oct. 21, $12$25
Fri.Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat, 2 p.m.); Sun., 5 p.m.
1695 18th St., SF