Friday, March 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Everyday women burdened, unbowed by repression, war

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

"9 Parts of Desire" by Heather Raffo. Tuesday-Sunday through April 15 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$46 (206-443-2222 or

The sensuous Baghdad painter Layla talks frankly of her extramarital affairs, even those with members of the deposed leader Saddam Hussein's inner circle.

Amal, a Bedouin, speaks of a romantic quest that's led her from man to man, marriage to marriage, and from Iraq to London to Israel and back.

These women, portrayed at Seattle Repertory Theatre by actress Najla Said along with seven other Iraqi characters, are not political symbols of their long-beleaguered nation.

They are sexual and social beings of flesh and blood, despair and longing, who amazingly wrench shreds of joy, humor and purpose from great anguish. They are conflicted, angry, expressive. And they have no simple plan to sell you about how their country can be saved, or save itself, from further devastation and tragedy.

Their complex humanity is what makes "9 Parts of Desire" such a unique and shattering theatrical outing, in its Seattle Repertory Theatre debut.

Heather Raffo's 90-minute play, which she performed to acclaim in London and New York, like Anna Deavere Smith's work gives us a chorus of disparate voices and views around a topically charged theme — one that builds to a tumultuous crescendo which helps demystify "the other."

The "other" here? Women rooted in a nation whose destiny is now entangled in that of our own country.

But in contrast to Smith's real-life figures, Raffo's characters in "9 Parts of Desire" are "fictional composites," drawn from her 11 years of interviews with women living in and out of Iraq.

The Rep's staging of the show is the first outing by Said (a veteran actress and daughter of scholar-writer Edward Said). She's still finessing the physical and vocal distinctions between her nine demanding roles, and some subtler rhythms in Raffo's impressionistic text.

But Said engages deeply with this material, plunging us right into a theatrical event that can be startling in its rawness and intimacy.

On Antje Ellermann's terrific war-zone set of a half-destroyed ancient building, plastic sheeting and piles of sandbags, keenly lit by Peter West, Said first appears as a peasant washing shoes in a river.

In transitions deftly orchestrated by director Joanna Settle (who also staged the New York production), Said executes quick changes of identity with a shift of her abaya (the long black garment traditionally worn by many Arab women).

Hunched in a chair, she is Amal, genially recounting a search for love that's at heart a search for peace. Dancing to a rock video, she's an Iraqi youth chattering on about the pop group 'NSync, then calmly showing us how to use a pistol.

Hooda, an elderly academic living in London, sips Scotch and speaks wryly of protesting the Vietnam War. She's doubtful the U.S. can set things right in her own homeland and abhors the atrocities committed in Saddam's regime. But given a choice, Hooda says she prefers "chaos to permanent repression and cruelty."

The Saddam-era rapes and tortures briefly listed by Hooda and the complex artist Layla are hard to absorb. So is Umm Gheda's monologue. Tormented by family losses in a U.S. air raid during the first Gulf War, she's a self-appointed "tour guide" of the bomb shelter where hundreds died in the attack.

And Raffo echoes her own dilemma as an Iraqi American with a surrogate New Yorker who can't stop watching war news on TV. In Obadiah Eaves' excellent sound design, one hears a phone message she receives soon after Sept. 11, from loved ones in Iraq. In heartfelt bursts of broken English they convey fears for her safety, and their sorrow about the U.S. terror attacks.

The message is poignantly ironic, given that Iraq has since suffered an estimated tens of thousands of deaths on its own soil, in the past three years of strife.

And it is one of numerous precious moments in "9 Parts of Desire" when the metaphorical veil of difference which separates humans rips away, and in the "other" we recognize the love, fear and hope common to us all.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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