Theater is a lens you look through: Think of going to the theater like putting on a pair of eyeglasses. If the play and performance are good, you’ll be taken someplace revealing, maybe see something you haven’t seen before or see it more clearly. Most of the time, you take the glasses off at the end of the play and your vision returns to normal, the fleeting but enjoyable effect of entertainment.
“Nine Parts of Desire,” Heather Raffo’s exquisite, passionate and penetrating one-person show about the women of Iraq, is an example of a rarer occasion. This is the type of play in which the lens likely won’t evaporate; after the show is over and the metaphorical eyeglasses are removed, one’s vision will almost certainly remain altered. Familiar images -- say, a newspaper photo of an Iraqi woman wrapped head-to-toe in black, crying over a devastating loss -- will take on added dimensions, evoke greater curiosity or simply seem far less distant than before.
The images, Raffo is telling us, are closer than they appear.
Raffo’s play, a hit in London and New York, depicts nine women, a varied gallery representing different experiences and perspectives. With a quick flick of a cloak designed for versatility, she transforms from character to character, making full use of changing accents and physical posture. One moment she may be an overweight Bedouin woman who’s been shamed by a potential lover; the next, a teenage girl bouncing to the beat of ‘N Sync before a blackout interrupts her revelry. Moments later, she’s a jaded exile living in London and dulling the agony of political chaos with Scotch.
Inspired by interviews Raffo conducted during and following her visit to Iraq in 1993, these are not journalistic reports but structurally calibrated dramatic monologues, often with poetic but always sincere touches. Raffo returns most often to a seemingly free-spirited artist with many layers of contradictions to peel away. Popular during Saddam Hussein’s rule for painting public portraits of him, the artist survived the dictatorship, but at great cost. Now, she questions the meaning of liberation.
Not all of the segments are so nuanced. Others tell blunt, deeply disturbing facts of war. There’s the Western-trained doctor who details the symptoms of strange cancers that are showing up. And there’s the woman who has lived next door to a bomb shelter destroyed during the first Gulf War. In an unemotional monotone, she points out the spot where a woman’s silhouette appears on the wall, a relic of when the intense heat of the bomb killed hundreds.
While providing plenty of fodder for those who may oppose the war, Raffo’s play purposely does not take that kind of stand. It’s an “antiwar” play only in the sense that it looks without blinking at the suffering caused. Hussein’s reign, of course, was by no means a pleasant alternative, and the play explores with great depth of feeling the human toll of dictatorship on the women who’ve watched their families “stolen.” The double-edged political sword is captured in part by the conflicted emotions of the exile, who insists, with tears of doubt in her eyes, that the current mess is still preferable to the way things were.
Raffo also depicts a woman awfully close to herself, an American with an Iraqi father and many cousins still in Baghdad. She watches the television news with the stare of an addict, searching for familiar places and faces, as the family has been unable to be in touch since the war began. Antje Ellermann’s unit set is a marvel of efficiency, and almost a sculpture in and of itself.
Most important, under Joanna Settle’s direction, Raffo delivers a genuinely memorable performance, bringing full-fledged humanity to each of her subjects.
She takes us with her into their histories and anguish. If the play can’t be called hopeful, it does affirm the full power of the theatrical form to take us places the news cannot, and to make us look again at the images we see with fresh perspective, knowing there are real people involved, not so very different from ourselves.
‘Nine Parts of Desire’
Where: Geffen Playhouse at Brentwood Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 16
Price: $35 to $95
Contact: (310) 208-5454,
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Written and performed by Heather Raffo. Directed by Joanna Settle. Set by Antje Ellermann. Costumes by Kasia Walicka Maimone. Lighting by Peter West. Original music and sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Production stage manager, Michelle Magaldi.