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This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 22, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Afghan Women’

New plays, especially those with a serious esthetic

and social intent, are notoriously difficult to produce. Artistic

quality can rise and fall from one scene, and even one line, to the

next. Trenton native William Mastrosimone’s new play, "The Afghan

Women," now on stage at Passage Theater in Trenton, offers its

share of high moments as well as some dips in the valley below.

Based partly on his own experiences traveling through Afghanistan

in the 1980s, Mastrosimone has written a hybrid of a play that shifts

between being a realistic political drama — highlighted with

sitcom-esque

comic zingers — that occasionally morphs into an expressionistic

theater piece filled with light, shadow, and dance-like moments out

of time. It will be onstage at Passage Theater through November 2.

Malalai (Cindy Katz) is an Afghan-American female physician who has

returned to her homeland to operate an orphanage under extreme

deprivation.

With her hands brittle from digging the graves of so many starving

children, Malalai encounters three women (Regina Hilliard Bain, Soraya

Broukhim, and Sophia Skiles) scouring the dirt for the bones of dead

children to be used to make buttons and chicken feed. After

threatening

them with her machine gun, which later proves to be inoperable,

Malalai

takes pity on them and feeds the three women rice and gives them

refuge.

Hamood (Christopher McCann), a powerful and ruthless warlord with

designs on overthrowing the government, takes a fancy to the

attractive,

yet cantankerous, doctor. On the run from potential assassins and

the Afghan army, Hamood hopes to make a getaway to the Pakistan border

using children from the orphanage as a human shield. He is aided by

his only surviving son, Omar (Randy Reyes). Unable to persuade Hamood

to change his mind, Malalai and the three women plot to brutally kill

the warlord.

The less realistic elements of "The Afghan Women" are

theatrically

enticing and give the production its strongest moments. The language

uttered by every character often flows with beauty and elegance

("Their

souls lack bodies and we are bodies that lack souls" and "An

Afghan returns a pinch with a punch"). According to the production

notes, the play takes its inspiration from Euripedes’ "The Trojan

Women" and much of the play’s nonrealistic feel stems from

Mastrosimone’s

nod to this ancient Greek play.

But it is when these expressionistic moments become

enmeshed with strict realism that the play falters and creates

awkwardness.

The long scene in which Hamood and Malalai meet and proceed to

verbally

dual using lines from their favorite Afghan poets as foils stretches

credibility. The three Afghan women, who often serve as a kind of

Greek chorus with no real individual identity of their own, suddenly

spout details of personal past calamities as their reasons for

acquiescing

to help murder Hamood. This seems, at the least, forced.

Malalai, enraged at the three women for scavenging for the bones of

dead orphans abruptly shifts her mood and decides to explain her

personal

history to them as she sits right where they were just digging.

The orphans, ostensibly hidden in the back, play a central role in

both the motivations of the characters and in the play itself —

Mastrosimone

is stipulating that all productions must raise money for International

Orphan Care, an organization dedicated to maintaining Afghan

orphanages.

But although these children are repeatedly referred to, the audience

is given no real evidence (sound or sight) that they actually exist.

This lessens any sense of empathy the audience may generate for them

and their plight.

But despite these clumsy moments, "The Afghan Women" is a

play worth seeing. It is an intelligently serious play that takes

on a world in which few Americans have much understanding. Because

this is its first production, there is no doubt that most of these

problems will be taken care of in further revisions.

This production boasts some fine performances, particularly by

Christopher

McCann, Regina Hilliard Bain, Soraya Broukhim, and Sophia Skiles.

Randy Reyes, in a small role as Hamood’s excitable boy, does a

yeoman-like

job. Jonathan Bernstein’s direction keeps things moving at a

satisfying

pace, and Brent Langdon’s fight direction is appropriately jarring.

In addition, the design elements are all top notch. Robert W.

Henderson’s

dramatically moody lighting perfectly complement Gail Cooper-Hecht’s

subtle costume designs (composed of muted, yet striking, colors) and

Eliza Brown’s functional dusty set work well together. Marc Gwinn’s

sound design adds much to the atmosphere of the play’s world.

To say that "The Afghan Women" is a work-in-progress in no

way diminishes its power to stir and educate its audience. Part of

the fun of seeing live theater is not just to experience the power

of performance and of a richly refined work, but the added drama of

theater professionals struggling, sometimes brilliantly, to give birth

to a new creation.

— Jack Florek

The Afghan Women, Passage Theater, Mill Hill

Playhouse,

Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. William

Mastrosimone’s

new play about an Afghan-American doctor who returns to her homeland

to volunteer at an orphanage. Part of ticket sales goes to

International

Orphan Care. Performances continue to Sunday, November 2. $25.

Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays

at 5 p.m. Www.passagetheatre.org.


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