Twice in Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire, an Iraqi woman quotes Scheherazade, the heroic narrator of Thousand and One Nights. Both women begin the quote the same way, but although both retain the essence, each remembers a different interpretation. This shifting truth is the thread that runs through Nine Parts of Desire. Iraqi women are not a homogeneous face half-hidden by the veil; they are not the past and they are not the modern, but rather something that encompasses both then and now. Each is her own Scheherazade, telling a different tale every day in the hopes of surviving one more night so that a new tale may be begun.
St. Louis Actors' Studio and director Milton Zoth have expanded Raffo's play, originally a one-woman production, to accommodate a cast of three. Between them, Brooke Edwards, Mary Schnitzler and Sara Renschen portray eight Iraqi women (and one Iraqi-American woman). Through these nine lenses, we glimpse an Iraq markedly different from the one packaged on CNN. The women tell their own stories, which involve divorce, the arts, the long political fight to overthrow Saddam, the belief that America is only a different master from Saddam and not a different regime, the fascination with Western culture and a very alien — to Western thinking — idea that freedom is not as desirable as peace. And always there is the war, as ubiquitous to them as oxygen. Some women dwell on the horror, some try to forget, but none is untouched. Although there is not a plot in the "beginning, middle, end" sense (how would one find the beginning, middle and end of a culture that reaches across millennia?), Zoth weaves the woof and warp of these overlapping stories into a tapestry-like sense of time and place. Here are a thousand nights, with that final one always yet to come.
Nine Parts of Desire
Through November 23 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue.
Tickets are $25 ($18 for students and seniors).
Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org.
Patrick Huber's set is a marvel of economy. An artist's studio, the open desert, a riverbank, a field hospital, a London study, they all jumble together onstage. The edges of time and place encroach upon one another but coalesce into a definite space when an actress provides the context.
Sara Renschen creates a bright-eyed Baghdad girl who loves 'N Sync and watches Oprah on satellite to see all the people with "hard lives, we feel sorry for them." She can also identify by sound the difference between a grenade and bomb exploding and knows the unique report of the M-16 as compared to the AK-47. Is it naiveté or optimism that allows her to live this way? Renschen finds a narrow pass between the two, keeping her a child amid the nightmare.
Edwards brings a gorgeous zest for life to Layal, the artist who paints female nudes — a risky move in Iraq. Romantic and libertine, Layal claims to be "a good artist; OK mother; terrible wife. But I am very good at being naked." More surprising is that she's a favorite of Saddam, known for her portraits of him as well. She remembers Scheherazade's words, "Either I shall die, or I shall live a ransom for all the virgin daughters of Muslims and the cause of deliverance from his hands to life." Modern, complex, practical even as she dances along the edge of Islamic law — and Saddam's law — Layal's is a precarious life, but it's hers. And she will dance to the last.
Mullaya, played with a poetic quietude by Mary Schnitzler, has given her life to the war. She visits the river nightly, collecting the shoes of the dead she finds on her path and then feeding the soles — or is it "souls?" — to the river. "Either I shall die or I shall live a ransom for all the daughters of Savagery. She called it Savagery when you love like you cannot breathe," Mullaya recalls. Here among the bombs, Scheherazade's desperate fight to survive the arrogance of Man is still recalled, the battle still fought.