By Hengameh E. Rice. Directed by Brenley Charkow. At Factory Theatre Studio, 125 Bathurst St., until April 2. factorytheatre.ca or 416-504-9971
She drinks, she smokes, she parades around her gorgeous garden compound in a bathing suit. She’s a successful business person and the leader of a powerful underground women’s movement in Tehran, circa 2009. She doesn’t disagree when her brother calls her a shark.
This is Anahita, the title character in an intriguing new play offering an insider perspective into gender, power and freedom in contemporary Iran. As played by Sama Mousavi, Anahita is a seductive, contradictory, fascinating figure; and my understanding of her, as well as the other three characters, kept changing throughout the 90-minute show.
The vantage the play offers is rare and writing it is risky: the playwright’s name, Hengameh E. Rice, is a pseudonym for two writers, one from Shiraz, Iran, and the other from Edmonton, who are keeping their real identities under wraps for fear of reprisal.
The Iranian half of the duo left their native country after the murder of Neda Soltan in 2009 during a period known as the Green Revolution. The pair started writing “Anahita’s Republic” before the current crisis in Iran, but that context underlines the play’s larger points and raises the stakes around them.
The ongoing curtailment of women’s rights and freedoms in Iran, and the attempted suppression of dissent, has not stopped protest movements from happening. But the play demonstrates how a struggle of this length, complexity and entrenchment can warp lives and lead to hazy moral ground. Is Anahita a hero or a victim? An exploiter or a martyr? I walked away without easy answers and I think that’s by the playwrights’ design.
Structuring the story as a thriller is another smart move in principle: as the audience takes in the story’s twists and turns, their perceptions and affiliations shift, underlining the theme and atmosphere of moral uncertainty. But the plotting is also overladen. it grows increasingly hard to buy into all the new information presented and, by the end of the play, things teeter on the edge of melodrama. An initial framing device of a scene set in the past happens so quickly that it’s hard to understand its significance.
The central story takes place over a day, as Anahita and her brother Cyrus (Fuad Ahmed) plan a crucial meeting of their protest movement. He’s a member of parliament (as the play tells us a few too many times) and a family man, who has the external agency that Anahita lacks because she refuses to adhere to government restrictions for women, particularly wearing the chador in public (there’s a useful glossary of terms and phrases in the digital program).
Cyrus wants to bring an ayatollah into the meeting to help the group work toward change within existing systems, but Anahita will hear none of it.
The playwrights have given themselves a complicated task, providing a great deal of exposition about the social and cultural context for audiences who will likely be unfamiliar with it, as well as presenting and building character and relationship. This and other scenes become somewhat overwritten and overlong, but the actors play the material with skill and pace under Brenley Charkow’s smart direction for the Bustle & Beast Theatre Company.
When an expected delivery of smuggled luxury goods is brought not by Masood, the older man who runs the smuggling business (Omar Alex Khan), but by his 20-something, chador-wearing daughter Omid (Mahsa Ershadifar), the plot thickens. Omid’s got her own agenda and Anahita’s loyalties are torn as she recognizes the spirit of protest in the younger woman — but can she trust that instinct?
Sim Suzer’s beautiful set design transforms the Factory Studio into a lush environment that skilfully communicates both the luxury and the containment of Anahita’s world. While the cues could be toned down, Siobhan Sleath’s lighting design helps delineate between indoor and outdoor locations, and Niloufar Ziaee’s costumes offer valuable information about the characters’ priorities and values (under her chador, Omid’s clothes are brightly coloured and contemporary).
This play presents a complementary and very different perspective on contemporary Iran to that recently offered in Sanaz Toussi’s gentle “English” at Soulpepper Theatre: this a sharper-edged play but a messier one, structurally and tonally. Hengameh E. Rice is a promising playwright(s) with an urgent story to tell and I hope this is not the last of their plays we’ll see.
does not endorse these opinions.