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From ancient Persian poetry rises 'Feathers of Fire,' billed as largest shadow-theater play

From ancient Persian poetry rises 'Feathers of Fire,' billed as largest shadow-theater play
Hamid Rahmanian's "Feathers of Fire" uses shadow-casting actors and puppets along with projected imagery to re-create a story from the ancient book of Persian poetry "Shahnameh." ("Feathers of Fire")

When Hamid Rahmanian says, "I'm kind of like a bulldozer," the artist means the tenacious way he enters any new project — long work hours, "begging" for funding, camping in rehearsal spaces. But he's also a bulldozer of a talker. A simple question will unloose a topic-hopping stream of excitement.

Rahmanian's new project is the shadow puppet production "Feathers of Fire," which bills itself as the largest shadow play ever performed. Taking inspiration from one of the most primitive methods of telling stories ("Imagine you are in the cave, and you have a fire, and first thing to come is your shadow," an animated Rahmanian says), "Feathers of Fire" adapts the techniques of San Francisco "shadow master" Larry Reed — inventor of a dramatic protruding mask — to create a cinematic, hour-long spectacle.

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"Feathers of Fire" employs eight actors, 160 puppets and 15 masks and costumes. Its 158 animated backgrounds are rear-projected onto a vast, 15- by 30-foot screen.

After premiering in January in San Francisco (where Francis Ford Coppola saw it no less than three times) and playing to sold-out crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the show makes its L.A. premiere Friday at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.

The story is culled from the "Shahnameh," an ancient book of epic Persian poetry that Rahmanian adapted into a lavishly illustrated book for a modern audience in 2013. "Feathers" is the origin story from that book: of the outcast boy Zaul, brought up by a mythical bird, who enters into forbidden love with the princess Rudabeh, giving birth to Rostam — "the Hercules of Iran."

A scene from "Feathers of Fire."
A scene from "Feathers of Fire." ("Feathers of Fire")

Rahmanian knew early on that the typical means of casting shadows would not suffice.

"I love colors," he said by phone from his Brooklyn home. "And my background is animation, so I love moving images. For me, just two halogen lights and then moving backward and forward would be limiting. I wanted to do something bigger, and also have my own accent."

He stumbled on the solution while working in the studio with his storyboard artist. Rahmanian was projecting transparencies when he happened to stand in front of the images. " 'Oh, my God, we don't need the halogen light! Let's just do projectors,' " he recalls saying to the storyboard artist.

"Feathers of Fire" creator Hamid Rahmanian sees the production as a way of sharing his homeland's visual and literary culture.
"Feathers of Fire" creator Hamid Rahmanian sees the production as a way of sharing his homeland's visual and literary culture. ("Feathers of Fire")

"You can animate your background, and your actor can actually respond to animation. It's never been done before. You can zoom in to a closeup, and it's happening on the screen live with the shadow. Also, you can pan in your animation, and your actors can pan with it. All of a sudden, the show became alive."

The show's score, by Iranian American musicians Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali, features the instruments the saz, ney and kamaan as well as Ali's vocals.

"The music had to have a certain authenticity to it, but at the same time really function like a score," Torkian says.

Adds Ali, "We didn't want it to be that culturally specific, as long as it had colors of Persian music."

Rahmanian's own origin story casts some light on his bulldozer drive. He was born in Iran to a line of tradesmen. ("There were no artists in my family — none, zero, doesn't exist," he says with a laugh.) In high school, he painted murals of Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath album art on his bedroom wall, then friends paid him to do the same for them. With his inferior grades, he was terrified of the prospect of being sent to the front lines in the war against Iraq, which would have been his fate if he didn't attend college. After nightmare-fueled nights studying for the daunting entrance exam, he says, he was one of 30 (out of 17,000) accepted into Tehran University's graphic design program.

By 24, Rahmanian was making good money and enjoying solo exhibitions -- and then  he read a poem. It was about the complacency that comes with a basket of fruit when there are gardens to be found.

"I have to go in the search of gardens," he remembers thinking.

In 1994, he moved to the United States. He scored a job at Disney, where he worked on "Tarzan" and "The Emperor's New Groove." But after less than three years, he says, "I begged them to lay me off." He moved to New York, where he's made independent documentary and feature films in the years since.

"Shahnameh" has been his most ambitious project to date. The 600 illustrated pages took him four years of 17-hour days to complete.

"I love what I'm doing, and I think socially it's very important," he says.

Seeing cross-cultural and cross-generational audiences at performances of "Feathers of Fire" fulfills Rahmanian's deepest dream: to share his homeland's rich visual and literary culture with the West.

"Iran is always in the news, and 99% of the time, it's a negative light," he says. "I challenge the stereotype. I highlight the strength of the culture. I always avoid being political — because politics comes and goes. What's remained, what you're proud of, is your culture."

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"Feathers of Fire"

Where: Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, UCLA

When: 8 p.m. May 27, 3 and 8 p.m. May 28, 3 p.m. May 29

Tickets: $30-$70

Info: (310) 825-2101 or www.kingorama.com

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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