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Published: Wednesday, 11/9/2005

Flaws don't diminish intense Kushner play

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Homebody/Kabul opens with one of the most amazing performances I have had the privilege of witnessing.

Not only do the words of playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) beguile the senses, the performance of Sue Ott Rowlands is mesmerizing. She starts out as a fluttery British housewife who seems somewhat absent-minded and not very bright. But through a good 30 minutes or more of monologue, her character, referred to only as "Homebody," reveals her passion for big words, her pain that her family is estranged, and her fascination with Afghanistan.

It is her self-confidence, we realize, that is lacking, not her intelligence, and when she makes the decision to travel to that far-off land, not a word about it crosses her lips. But the look on her face speaks volumes.

If Kushner's play had stopped right there, it would have been deeply satisfying. But there is much more, because the Afghanistan to which Homebody travels is not the exotic place of old guidebooks and histories, it is the country ruled by the Taliban in the months before the terrorist attacks on the United States.

What is shocking to realize is that Kushner wrote his play before those attacks, for it is incredibly prescient.

When Homebody's daughter, Priscilla, searches for her mother in Kabul, she meets Mahala, an educated Afghan woman who is confined to her home by Taliban edict. Mahala is furious about her inability to work, by the Taliban's treatment of women, by the CIA support of the Taliban during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

Ignoring the fact that Priscilla is British, Mahala rages:

"Afghanistan kill the Soviet Union for you, we win the 'Cold War' for you, for us is not so cold, huh? You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York!"

The moment is electric.

Homebody/Kabul is as much about the relationship among family members as it is about the relationship between Afghanistan and the West. The production presented by the University of Toledo's Department of Theatre and Film is touching, especially as Priscilla begins to see the Kabul residents as individuals, not a faceless mass of oppressors, and the audience comes to realize how much history and culture is forever lost.

Some of the play, however, is frustrating.

The big problem is that the play is simply too long. Yes, the material is fascinating, even important. But at three hours, plus intermission, even the most ardent theatergoer is likely to begin to lose interest.

Another problem is caused by the British accent. Ott Rowlands has hers down perfectly, but Benjamin Pryor, director of UT's Law & Social Thought program, who plays the Homebody's husband, and UT student Elif Erturk, who plays her daughter, are less assured, and some of their dialogue, usually when they were arguing or whispering, is incomprehensible.

For the most part, the rest of the cast borders on astounding, especially Katie Rediger of Toledo as Mahala, whose fury is used to help explain Afghanistan's quarrel with the West. Director Elysa Marden brought in coaches to help the cast with the various languages used in the play, and the Dari and Pashtun, French and Esperanto that roll off their tongues certainly sounded authentic.

Only Marty Coleman as a British attache fails to impress. His speech is stilted and his manner uncomfortable and stiff.

Despite its importance, Homebody/Kabul is not for everyone. There is a lot of profanity in it, as well as some graphic depictions of illegal drug use.

The University of Toledo Department of Theatre and Film presents Tony Kushner's "Home- body/Kabul" through Nov. 20 in the Center for Performing Arts. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $13 for the general public, $11 for seniors, UT employees and alumni, and $9 for students. Information: 419-530-2375.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.



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