What to see: The Piano Lesson, Third, and 9 Parts of Desire

By anne
March 20, 2008 - 15:41.

Yes, we’re supposed to get more snow, but please don’t let the weekend pass without getting out to a show! The best use of two hours between now and March 30, in my book, is either August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at Penumbra Theatre, or Wendy Wasserstein’s Third at the Guthrie. If you can, see them both.

The Piano Lesson is so compelling, I saw it twice. It’s the story of a brother and sister who fight over a piano that has intricate carvings depicting their family’s journey through slavery. At issue is whether to sell the piano to fund the family’s welfare today, or keep it out of respect for the price that was paid in human life to smuggle it out of a slave owner’s house. Typical of August Wilson plays, there are no set changes, and the spiritual side of life meets the practical in surprising ways. Under the direction of Lou Bellamy, the cast and the chilling light/sound presence of a ghost will draw you into the family’s living room and keep you entertained there until the final, whispered, “Thank you.”

Third brings politics into the classroom, and takes the classroom out into the world. Sally Wingert is so convincing in the role of the self-absorbed professor that I believe she could play Meryl Streep’s role in The Devil Wears Prada. Her humility is delivered, not in the form of a design ingenue, but through the forthrightness of a student whom she accuses of plagiarism. Third is almost sure to raise your blood pressure and is guaranteed to make you laugh. It’s not a musical, but the selection of songs from which snippets are played would make a great sound track.

One more play I want to mention is 9 Parts of Desire, also at the Guthrie. Set in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq, and in London and New York City, the play is a conversation across time and space among women of Iraqi heritage. Here’s what playwright Heather Raffo says about the play in Backstage magazine: “I want American audiences to walk out a little confused, not able to say, ‘Oh. I get it,’ but rather [to] understand how difficult it is to grasp the psyche of people who have lived under Saddam for 30 years with American support, then had a war with Iran, resulting in 1.5 million deaths, followed by 13 years of sanctions and two wars under American firepower.” Raffo is American, as is her mother, and her father is Iraqi.

Raffo originally performed the play herself, but in the Guthrie production, all nine parts are performed by Kate Eifrig, who effectively conveys each character’s point of view and passion, but doesn’t always clearly distinguish their accents. I appreciated what each woman was saying; I just wasn’t always sure who was saying it. Aside from that minor frustration—and aside from feeling more angry and depressed than usual about the war, and about how the world treats women—I’m glad I saw the play. You won’t leave untouched or uninspired. As such, I would suggest attending with a companion or several, and planning ahead for a post-play discussion over dinner.

I want to tell you the nine characters and the source of the title, because it helped me to know that in advance. The title comes from a quote attributed to Ali Ibn Abu Taleb, Mohammed’s son-in-law: “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” Here are the characters:

Mullaya: Hired woman who leads a call-and-response with women mourning at funerals.

Layal: Painter. She is sexy, elegant, a resilient and fragile woman. She is a daredevil with a killer smile.

Amal: 38. bright, festive, robust woman. She looks intently at whomever she is talking to that you would swear her eyes never blink.

Huda: 70s. a whiskey drinker coupled with 50 years of smoking. an Iraqi exile who now lives in london.

The Doctor: british-educated pediatrics doctor.

Iraqi Girl: Preteen girl who has not been in school since the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Umm Ghada: A woman of great stillness and pride, peaceful and dispassionate. Lives in a trailer, outside the amiriyya bomb shelter.

The American: Young woman who lives in New York City. She has not left her studio for days.

Nanna: Old woman, scrappy and shrewd. She sells things on the street corner to make money.

NOTE: The final performance of 9 Parts of Desire is at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 23.

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