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PlayMakers Repertory Company uses its small Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre (about the size of Manbites Dog, Common Ground, and Burning Coal) for its PRC2 series of one-person or small-cast shows that deal with some issue of immediate social or political relevancy. Currently running is actor-writer Heather Raffo’s one-woman play, 9 Parts of Desire, which introduces us to several Iraqi women. Raffo, whose paternal relatives are Iraqi, spent 10 years getting to know a range of Iraqi women and grafting their stories onto fictionalized characters. She launched her multiple portrait of women in this war zone at precisely the cultural moment when it could hit like a drilling bomb — shortly after George W. Bush made such a fool of himself with his “mission accomplished” stunt. Although she first performed the work at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it soon settled into an extended New York run. Subsequently, Raffo performed the piece around the country, then made it available for performance by others, and now it is popping up at regional theaters such as PlayMakers.
It is directed here by the multitalented Raleigh native Emily Ranii — actor, director and — by day — artistic director of Carrboro’s ArtsCenter Stage. She’s a member of Burning Coal, and has worked with several other theaters before, during, and since receiving her theater training at Cornell University. This is her first production for PlayMakers, and her presence there is another happy indication that PlayMakers is knitting itself back into the local community outside the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. For this show, Ranii teamed with another actor/director, Elizabeth Huffman, who is based in Oregon and works all over the country, to realize the several characters in one body.
Together, they created from Raffo’s incantatory language an intimate and absorbing series of visits with these diverse women, and they do justice to the play’s bold declarations in favor of love and the pursuit of freedom. I’m not all that crazy about one-person shows, because what matters to me the most in theater is the interactions between characters; but Huffman is charismatic enough to fully hold one’s attention through the strenuous 90-minute tour de force of monologues from the nine characters. I would have preferred a little more variation in gesture, posture, and gait among them, but she achieves a distinct voice for each, and — beyond the rage and sorrow — catches both the gossipy tone and the magisterial poetics of the writing, while coolly dispensing horrifying information. There is more than a little of the priestess in her performance, and even glimpses of the great goddess. Some of the oldest goddesses in the world came from “the cradle of civilization” there along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; but since that cradle is now a poisoned graveyard, is it surprising that even the goddesses are in exile, working nights in playhouses around the world to keep the life-force running just ahead of the death-force?
Designer Marion Williams ran a river of sand through the space, buttressed it with a cliff of sandbags to keep death at bay, and barricaded it with a stacked wall of more bags for the armature of an effective set. Huffman, in black except for the embroidery on her tunic, converts the scene from river to road to bomb shelter to bedroom to studio to exile apartment with her characters’ movement through the space, which is further vivified by Ross Kolman’s excellent lighting and the interesting sound design by Michael Matthews. Altogether, this is a solid and heartfelt production, if often a painful one. Though it hisses with outrage and sometimes flashes a coruscating wit, in the end it makes you feel that maybe civilization will stagger on — if we just don’t kill all the children of all the Mothers of Tomorrow with our “smart bombs.”
9 Parts of Desire continues at PRC2 through April 26. See our theatre calendar for details.