More on the War

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More on the War

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This week marks the thirtieth month of fighting in Iraq. As the war, which began two and a half years ago, marches on, so too does the onslaught of protest plays and Iraq-themed theatrical pieces.

Last week, Los Angeles saw the opening of two more such works. The first is Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire.

This one-woman show marks a welcome change in the Iraq war genre as it tells the stories of ordinary Iraqi women and how their lives have been affected by Saddam, the Bushes and two Gulf Wars.

Raffo is an American actress, who wrote this piece after speaking with women living in Iraq, as well as Iraqi exiles. The result is a fascinating look at the interior lives and private desires of women whose voices were not heard under Saddam's Baathist regime and are still yearning to be heard today.

Raffo's performance as these nine women lacks the virtuosity of say Jefferson Mays in the Geffen's recent production of I Am My Own Wife, but the roughness of her acting often serves the piece by making the words seem more honest and raw.

A crumbling, middle-eastern terrazzo is the single set. It along with some simple costumes and sound effects are all the stagecraft Nine Parts of Desire uses... and really, all it needs.

These visuals remind us that Raffo's stories are grounded in the real world. Nine Parts of Desire is a close-up of lives, which differentiates it from the more abstract, wide-angle view of Iraq seen in last week's second play about the war: What I Heard About Iraq.

This play, which had its world premiere on September 11, is based on an article which ran earlier this year in the London Review of Books. The author of the article, Eliot Weinberger, took quotations from interviews and strung them together to weave a narrative about the conflict Iraq. It begins &quotIn; 1992, a year after the first Gulf War, I heard Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, say that the US had been wise not to invade Baghdad."

Weinberger includes all the famous catch phrases in his article, &quotshock; and awe," &quotstuff; happens," &quotmission; accomplished," but his simple repetition of the phrase, &quotI; heard" gives the details an immediacy that sounds fresh.

The Fountain Theatre's Simon Levy obviously feels similarly as he's adapted Weinberger's article for the stage and given it a subtitle: &quotA; Cry for Five Voices." This subtitle was added, one supposes, to give it a musical quality, ala &quotSerenade; for flute and two cellos." And indeed, Weinberger's text has a rhythmic power that comes from the repetition of &quotI; heard." The &quotI; heard" also brings all this familiar information closer, as if newspapers, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Internet didn't exist and you're hearing about the war first hand by way of some ancient oral tradition.

The effect of this is at times quite powerful. Even those who have been following the war closely will be startled by a few of the things Weinberger has heard, plus the editing and arrangements of the quotes makes for a blunt argument against the war. But in this way, the piece never is never elevated above mere polemic. Levy sometimes has the actors impersonate the figures speaking and he also adds explosions and video projection; but this does not expand What I Heard About Iraq, it merely makes it more obvious.

The cumulative effect of Weinberger's stark, austere text calls to mind Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. The power in that work comes from its reserve: the simple listing of names. Likewise, in Weinberger's piece, the force of the argument comes from the simple repetition of what we already know. No stagecraft is needed to embellish the line: &quotI; heard that the US military had purchased 1,500,000,000 bullets for use in the coming year. That is 58 bullets for every Iraqi adult and child."

These words and numbers alone, speak for themselves.

What I Heard About Iraq runs at the Fountain Theatre through October 9. Nine Parts of Desire runs at the Brentwood Theatre until October 16.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.