The Thrust: On Death and Youth and Vigor
We’ll return to some bigger marquees soon enough, but last weekend was all about the small stage. And you know what they say about small packages.
This week brought an exceptional debut from Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble, standout work at a bi-annual theatre festival, and another strong production at an intimate stage in the shadow of the Cascades (on through 2/26).
Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble: The Forgotten History of Mastaneh
A debut performance brings stunning clarity to long-running conflict and profound loss.
History is the most fluid and unclear element in the world,
because it’s connected to memories and power.
Memory recalls the past, and power records it.
It’s hard to get more “memory play” than Naghmeh Samini’s riveting new work, The Forgotten History of Mastaneh, which recalls youthful memories, both playful and wrenching, over a 10-day period in and near Tehran. Those decades-past memories are themselves ensnared in the long-buried histories of a family and a nation, while challenging the very notions of memory and history.
Into its compact 90 minutes, Samini (who’s both playwright and director) packs a whole world, one where present is inextricably linked to past. It’s a phenomenal script.
And it gets a production to match. In some ways, that’s surprising. Playwrights directing their own work is always a mixed bag; often the playwright’s mind on the page and the audience for the stage could really use an intermediary. More significantly here, this is the company’s first production before a live audience. (Together with its co-producer and partner Macha Theatre Works, Seda staged a recorded performance of The Play of Life and Death (2021) and the short film The Title (2022), both by Samini, during pandemic closures.)
But the enthusiasm was already there. Mastaneh‘s short run of four performances over three days sold out well in advance. The audience response to a pre-show welcome was about as ebullient as any I’ve seen. And those early enthusiasts would likely point out that, for them, this production’s power came as no surprise at all.
There’s no shortage of established talent here. Seda co-founder, Managing Director, and Mastaneh production designer Parmida Ziaei is making the most exciting work in town. (Most well-known are her eye-catching conceptual set designs appearing on stages all over town; but also dance and choreography, like at Velocity Dance Center’s Firelight earlier this week; and other multimedia creations, as a resident artist in Village Theatre’s Northwest Creator Residency Program.) Seda Artistic Director and Mastaneh playwright-director Samini wasn’t known to me, but she apparently is to just about everyone else: she’s a prolific, award-winning, and internationally produced playwright, screenplay writer, author, and academic.
Here, Samini’s pacing with rat-a-tat dialogue keeps things rapt, almost addictive. There’s a trade-off to that: the English supertitles flying by — the play is in Farsi, with English translations by Bookda Gheisar — in some places had me thanking my lucky stars I’m a fast reader.
Thematically, history and memory, and the concept of taking one’s place in each, were at the forefront. But so were immediate concerns. The inability to escape in one’s own home was palpable, with war dropping both from above (bombs from the sky) and the side (the constant gaze of morality police), with fatal consequences, as dangerous from your own family as from outside. You can feel an exhausting and stifling state of affairs.
Leaping between two contemporaneous settings of people and memories was surprisingly fluid, aided by Ziaei’s crafty set design on the shallow stage, alongside Samini’s deft direction. Talented actors meshed well, with versatility in challenging roles, bringing an impulsivity of youth paired with a solemn sense of consequences (Mozhdeh Rahmanzaei, superb in the demanding title role, and Newsha Farahani and Navid Oskouipour as fellow teenagers); and a light breaking through a vast sorrow (Hamid Ehya, as a wise elder). Underappreciated, I think, was Azadeh Zanjani in her moments off in the shadows: as the girls’ strict teacher Ms. Rahimi, Zanjani’s steely gaze said much, revealing her as a holder of secrets without revealing their contents.
Defying conventional drama, The Forgotten History of Mastaneh hopped place and time, while giving a strong impression of each. It gripped like a bit of a thriller, with just enough foreshadowing to see the connecting threads on the journey there, while still letting viewers draw near and into its small moments.
To streamline the superlatives: Samini’s Mastaneh is an extraordinary play, given an extraordinary production, and a most promising debut for Seda, an exciting company that’s already drummed up a ton of (well-placed) favor. Don’t snooze on this company.
The Forgotten History of Mastaneh performed 2/10-12 at the Isaac Studio at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. Read more about the company and its founders here.
Stage Left Theater: Pass Over @ Kaleidoscope Festival
A Spokane-based company cranks up the heat in an intense script, and takes it to a multi-state contest.
No ghetto, no plantation. It’s just gonna be sweet.
… Like milk and honey.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the people around you are just as keeled-over by what’s happening on stage as you are. Not to mention the uncertainty of whether leaping up after one entry in a state-wide theatre competition is some sort of breach in contest etiquette.
If it was, the judge tearing up twice on stage and comparing its production quality to Hadestown had to be worse. But the fact was, none of us could contain ourselves. A trimmed-down version of Pass Over, the entry from Spokane-based company Stage Left, was just that good.
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over is structured largely with the rat-a-tat dialogue of youth; two young Black men on a corner, under a busted streetlight, who dare to dream. Occasionally, they’re visited by the White gaze in various forms: a gregarious, blundering visitor dangling an embarrassment of riches with suspicious motivations; an unambiguous guard dog of a cop, weapon at the ready, barking out orders; and periodic returns to check back in. The message: for young Black men in America, their promised land is the place of plagues, not the milk and honey.
I’ve seen Pass Over before, and it’s remarkable; but I’ve never seen it like this. Between Dahveed Bullis (as Moses) and Matthew Slater (as Kitch), under direction of Malcolm Pelles, is a rapport that tells an immediate story: a familiarity that’s so seasoned it’s family, coupled with the boundless energy of youth. Theirs, too, is the exhaustion and utter defeat upon realization you have nothing left, including your dignity. It’s a combination — at once overflowing and empty — that should never mix. And it’s a pairing that, for young Black men growing up in America, too often does.
Stage Left’s full-length, home-stage production of Pass Over was last year, and I wish I could have seen it. Nonetheless, watching this incisive, brilliantly staged shortened version is something to behold.
They’ll perform it again at the regional competition in mid-March in McMinnville, Oregon, as one of two companies selected (along with Bellingham Theatre Guild, with When Jack Met Jill) from the Washington entrants. That contest will determine who advances to the national competition in Louisville, Kentucky this summer. It’s not far-fetched to say this Pass Over could take it all.
See more information on Spokane’s Stage Left Theater here.
At the Festival
No one wants to see how actual sausage is made. But at Kaleidoscope, a festival of community theatre, the scaffolding is bared and the “how” is fully part of the show. Each company gets a 10×10 square to fit all their stuff in, 10 minutes each for setup and take down (which all occurs in front of the audience and is timed and part of the score), and 60 minutes (at most) to perform. Stage Left’s Pass Over setup and take-down was particularly impressive, involving a drill and what appeared to be a full production set — which is notable in its simplicity for a production set, but hardly simple to race-build before an audience.
Showcasing work and competing alongside Stage Left in the festival, held last weekend on the Tacoma Little Theatre stage: Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo gave a shortened preview of its upcoming comedy, Skin Deep, which will run its full-length version in March. The plot sounded snoozy, but performances by Casey Cline and Kim Hart in this two-hander were very funny, and I’d recommend checking it out for a good laugh. Theatre33, the Bellevue-based Russian bilingual company, presented another largely duo-driven play, Mind Game. Dressed up with glowing blocks and circus-like music playing faintly in the background, this staging made a compelling cat and mouse game between psychiatrist (Era Pogosova) and patient (Andrei Morozov), with a brain-twisting ending. This full run already closed, but it’s one I wish I had seen. Bellingham Theatre Guild performed vignettes from the memory collage When Jack Met Jill, another duo-driven play, and were selected (along with Pass Over) to perform at the regional contest in March. And the Ocean Shores-based Stage West Community Theatre bucked the small-cast trend, filling the stage with an eclectic dozen in the parody 12 Incompetent Jurors.
Kaleidoscope Festival, put on by the Washington State Community Theatre Association, is held every two years (except for 2021, thanks to the plague), at a different member theatre stage each time. Keep an eye out — it’s a lot of fun.
See more information about the festival here.
Valley Center Stage: I and You
A poetic mystery from a prolific modern playwright.
On its surface it’s not all that interesting: two high schoolers, one of them seriously ill, argue about a class project on Walt Whitman. And that snoozy-sounding plot is why, despite at least a few productions running locally in the past handful of years, I’ve never bothered to see this two-hander by oft-produced playwright Lauren Gunderson.
(Just how oft-produced is Gunderson? Nationally, she tops the list of most-produced playwrights for a second time. Locally, you can find three more of her plays running within the next month alone: Silent Sky on now from HEART Rep in Woodinville, The Revolutionists at Redmond’s SecondStory Rep opening tonight, and The Taming at Marysville’s Red Curtain in early March. With popular Christmas plays among her varied catalog, no doubt plenty more will hit local stages before the year is done.)
In I and You, at North Bend’s Valley Center Stage, the story plays out pretty much as I expected: poetic references woven throughout the strained, stilted conversation of two teenagers who don’t know and don’t particularly like each other (“Why do you assume you don’t like me?” / “Why do you assume you’re likable?”), in an unlikely setup and with a strange lack of adults in the picture. It all takes place in her bedroom, with an odd melange of photos on the wall and a decided lack of stuff, despite her protests that the place is a mess. Little about their conversation makes much sense, and even less seems to be getting anywhere.
Everything changes when you know the ending to I and You, a mystery that must be allowed to play out rather than revealed, but that makes the play so much better. The mostly inane dialogue takes on a new clarity, even poignancy. The teenagers’ clumsy dance around each other make sense. So does the blur between reality and something else, the ill-defined space where something just doesn’t feel right — and it’s either a lack of theatrical vision (usually) or a novel construct that just hasn’t revealed itself yet (a rarity).
The deception of I and You is not that the answers don’t make sense, but that we forget there’s a mystery at all. If you’ve seen I and You, it’s worth revisiting to hear the lines anew in their full meaning. If you haven’t, it’s a mystery worth opening.
Directed by Robin Walbeck-Forrest, performed by Isabelle Abarro and Joseph Beegle.
I and You performs through 2/26 at Valley Center Stage in North Bend. Closing weekend (2/16-19) performances were canceled due to illness, and 2/23 (pay-what-you-choose) and 2/26 (matinee) performances were added. Tickets and info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.