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Homebody/Kabul

By San Francisco
Michelle Morain in Homebody/Kabul
Michelle Morain in Homebody/Kabul
Now receiving its West Coast debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Tony Kushner's new play Homebody/Kabul has emerged as one of the first major theatrical works to address our post-September 11 reality. Kushner presciently began developing the piece back in 1997, when Americans thought of Afghanistan as just another distant, troubled country.

But while Homebody/Kabul is successful in presenting the miasma of interpenetrating forces operating in Afghanistan, it falls short of having a truly powerful impact. The three-and-a-half-hour play begins with a monologue by the "Homebody," an eccentric, discontent, middle-aged British woman deftly played by Michelle Morain. Speaking to the audience from a comfy living room chair, she expounds for nearly an hour on her dual fascinations with words and with the city of Kabul, a place she has discovered in an out-of-date travel book. It is a charming discourse but unfortunately, given the static presentation, it eventually wears thin.

There is an abrupt shift in action and tone as the play's setting moves from London to Kabul circa 1998, cementing the impression given by the title that this is really two plays welded into one. The homebody has gone missing in Kabul, so her husband Milton (Charles Shaw Robinson) and daughter Priscilla (Heidi Dippold) have arrived to search for her. Functioning on one level as a mystery (is this woman dead or has she married an Afghan man and chosen to renounce her former life?), the play simultaneously probes the shattered psyche of Kabul and its denizens.

While a burka-clad Priscilla embarks on a mission through the dangerous Kabul streets, her father remains immobilized in his hotel room, seeking consolation from a somewhat deranged British aid worker named Quango. (Bruce McKenzie as the trapped Quango projects an affecting quality of tragicomic desperation as he shares his vices with Milton.) Meanwhile, Priscilla hires a man who claims to be a Tajik poet and a specialist in Esperanto (Harsh Nayyar) as her guide through the figurative and literal minefield of the Taliban-controlled city. The poet introduces her to Mahala (Jacqueline Antaramian), a spirited Afghan woman who seeks a passage to London as an escape from Taliban rule.

The supporting cast members who portray Kabul's residents do a fine job of opening up this mysterious world to us. In addition to Nayyar's nuanced turn as the poet/guide, local Shakespearean stalwart Julian Lopez Morillas creates a hauntingly matter-of-fact Afghan doctor, and Hector Correa is convincing as a merciless Taliban minister. One of the high points of the production, directed by frequent Kushner collaborator Tony Taccone, is a multi-level set designed by Kate Edmunds that ingeniously presents the city of Kabul as a war-torn place coated with rubble and wire mesh. As smoke drifts from the back of the stage, the vision of Kabul as a bombed-out, ancient mecca packs a visceral punch.

While the play sheds some light on one of the great post-September mysteries--"Why do they hate us so?"--its three central female figures lack a certain emotional resonance. Kushner's lyrical language has a number of effulgent peaks throughout the evening, though at times the script falls into a lumpy didacticism, especially in the third act. Though the author hasn't achieved the potent catharsis he found with Angels in America, he has created in Homebody/Kabul an ambitious and often invigorating work that explores some of the most salient issues of our time.


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