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Curtain rises on Iraq, the comedy

Despite blasts and barricades, crowds keep coming to watch actors skewer a beloved nation in the grip of nattering politicians.

October 09, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Two little men argue on a creaky stage, locked like electrons in orbit, while an actress wearing a powdered face and red lipstick lurks in the wings near a harried director who repeats "God willing" into a cellphone as the audience for the evening's performance gathers in the lobby, whiffs of perfume competing with the faint scent of gunpowder.

War in the streets, war in the wings; this is theater in Baghdad.

Suicide bombers explode, armored vehicles creep down alleys, soldiers squint through barbed wire. But in the half-lighted theater, amid worn velour seats and costume racks sparse in sequins and silk, director Haider Munathar runs through lines of a satirical comedy about nattering politicians and a lost king in a strange, violent yet hopeful country known as Iraq.

"Bring the King, Bring Him" opened a few days ago, hours after a car bomb shook the National Theater, crumpling the dressing room ceiling and bruising Zahra Beden, Munathar's wife, and another actress in the play. Munathar, who also stars as the king, worried that the attack would keep audiences away. But the crowds keep coming, braving the city's frequent explosions and horizon of curling smoke.

"We are working in an impossible situation," says Munathar, a slight man with a graying beard who moves with the mercurial trickery of a cartoon character. "But we just can't fold. We have to work. The curtain must keep going up.

"We were sold out the other night. The Iraqi people have pushed past their state of fear. Life is coming back."

Munathar says the play is the first at the National Theater since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 to be performed after sunset -- a time of day in the not so distant past when it was too dangerous to wander beyond one's neighborhood.

The play skewers the nation he loves. The two-act cabaret-style show, written by playwright Ali Hussein, portrays Iraqi politicians as petty, corrupt and detached from the people they govern. A scene in parliament shows legislators discussing the ozone layer, importing garlic seeds (there is no garlic in the play's Iraq) and increasing their salaries -- everything but how to end bloodshed and rebuild a broken state. So out of touch is one politician that he proposes (just like a real-life legislator) erecting a huge Ferris wheel "so people can cool off in the summer heat."

Munathar laughs. He loves that line.

Such parody would not have been tolerated under Saddam Hussein. Munathar knows. The former manager of an experimental theater troupe in the 1990s, he was arrested and jailed by the dictator. But the new play, as with the declining casualties across the country, is another sign that life is expanding beyond blast walls and graveside prayers. Violence still strikes with sudden viciousness, but it doesn't smother like it once did.

"There is hope," he says. "But we Iraqis are passing through a critical point. There's patriotism, but a lot of chaos. . . . We need this change, yes, but the question is where will this situation take us? We don't want people saying, 'God bless the old days.' They were the worst days and we don't want Iraqis imagining that they were better than today. This can't happen."

Two hours before showtime. The theater echoes with voices like the prattle of a family murmuring from different rooms in a big house. Technicians snooze on couches near a window shattered by the bomb blast.

Beden slips into a dressing room, a fan strokes a few costumes and the actress speaks of Shakespeare and the classics and of Cairo, Spain and Tunis, those foreign stages she has played since the war began.

"The explosion was terrifying," she says. "But we must do this even if there's only one actor left. We must bring audiences back to the theater."

The little men rifle through lines on stage, rehearsing a scene, heads close, voices tight. Another actor, wearing a shirt the color of egg yolk, pounds at a podium, rehearsing a soliloquy. Each actor in the play has memorized multiple parts -- one never knows when a street battle or a checkpoint will prevent a character from reaching the performance.

An agitated man in a suit from the theater's management, worried about dust bunnies whirling onstage and clinging to costumes, hurries from the wings, bends, swipes his hand across the stage, tells Munathar: "This is dust, dust from yesterday."

The director looks at him the way one looks at an addled grandmother. The man wipes his hands and storms away, disappearing past curtains and ropes. The woman with the powdered face glides past the little men, waiting it seems for a line, or perhaps working on her presence. Munathar silences his cellphone: How many times can a man whisper "God willing" into the ether?

"This is the boldest play in Iraq," he says. "It will make the politicians sensitive. You know, the role of the actor is no less important than the politician. My actors, literally, break through barricades to make life. That's honorable."

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