Friday, November 21, 2003

Safe at home? You might be better off in Kabul

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In case there’s any doubt, it’s still not safe to travel to Kabul. In its most recent official travel warning about Afghanistan (dated July 28, 2003), the US State Department declares, apparently without irony, that "the ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure security is limited."

Among the threats to the personal security of American travelers are "remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network," as well as "US-led military operations." Of further concern to Americans heading there is that the US embassy in Kabul cannot issue replacement passports. Translation: If your identity gets lost in Afghanistan, you better find it before trying to get home.

Though Afghans are allowed on the streets of their capital without a curfew, American diplomats aren’t. Helpfully, then, the State Department Web site says Americans who insist upon traveling to Afghanistan should "register with" the embassy.

With these types of pronouncements coming from the most powerful nation in the world, whose "force projection" has sent troops throughout Afghanistan, stretching from remote fire bases in the northeast of the country to villages in the southwest, it is easy to want to remain a homebody.

But turn the page on the State Department’s Web site and there it is, in cold, black pixels: "We expect Al-Qaida will strive for new attacks that will be more devastating than the September 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents. We also cannot rule out the potential for Al-Qaida to attempt a second catastrophic attack within the US."

We’re really no safer here than anywhere.

Kabul, however, may never be among the safest places, current events notwithstanding. Founded on the banks of the Kabul River — now just a trickle after years of drought — the city has been a crossroads of cultures and a crucible of conflicts for thousands of years.

Tony Kushner wrote Homebody as a monologue by request and later turned it into the first act of the frighteningly prescient play Homebody/Kabul, in which the Homebody goes to Kabul, is reported dead, and her husband and daughter arrive to search for her in ruins left by the Taliban and the 1998 US missile attacks on the country. (Yes, Clinton fans, he pulled the trigger, too.)

This performance, directed by Richard O’Brien and executed by Jane Bergeron, is just the monologue section, nearly an hour of complex language and a sweeping history of Afghan history. Just the thing our president and Congress should have had before getting involved in entangling alliances with peacemakers and warlords alike.

O’Brien is something of a one-act specialist, and has chosen the shorter version here. The original full play Homebody/Kabul took about four hours to perform, though it’s still being revised.

We can thank the director for his compassion, given the seats in the PSC Studio Theater. Or perhaps it’s all part of the experience. As O’Brien observes, Kushner uses language to throw off both actor and audience in this monologue. Not only is his script thin on punctuation and full of complex sentence structure, but the vocabulary required is immense. We are meant to be off-balance, and the chairs help.

In a simple but ornate set reflecting the nature of the play’s words and its ideas, Bergeron sits in a 19th-century armchair with a traveling overcoat slung over the side. She has all the actors’ decks stacked against her: A solo monologue, without any lighting or sound cues, delivered from a sitting position, in very complex language designed to lose both actor and audience in discomfort and confusion. And Bergeron pulls off a masterful performance.

Bergeron took the role because "I didn’t know if I could" handle it, she said, after a recent performance. She has learned that she can.

Her intonation and pacing, facial expressions, head motions, and body language all combine to convey meaning and feeling in a play that could easily lack both. Her character even admits — as if to rub it in the actor’s face — that she is hard to listen to and speaks "elliptically."

She has chosen one book, a 1965 travel guide to Kabul, as her armchair ticket to another world. The play is set in 1998, just after the American missile strikes. The Homebody revisits the history of Kabul, from its legendary founding by Cain himself — he may yet be buried within the city — to the present. The play moves from "the serene beauty of the valleys of the Kabul River" still remembered in the songs of nomadic peoples who traveled through there thousands of years ago, to the shell-shocked and war-torn country of 1998, before it became even more shell-shocked and war-torn.

The play is filled with Kushner’s cutting lines, at once funny and painful, insightful and ironic. It also retains his sparks of hope, which are somehow as impossible to doubt as they are unlikely to ignite.

His voice sings through Bergeron’s own, warning and instructing simultaneously, and drawing to an irretrievable "what if" line, one the State Department, with only four or five fluent Arabic speakers (so how many speak Pashto?) amid thousands of diplomats, would do well to heed: "The truth which does not understand corrupts."

Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Richard O’Brien. Performed by Jane Bergeron. At the Human Theater Company at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through Nov. 23. Call (207) 774-0465.


• A group of local kids is doing a play about ego and nakedness at the Theater Project. Ending a four-week workshop and production class, fourth- through eighth-graders have reworked The Emperor’s New Clothes into a mime performance with live, improvised jazz music by Brad Terry. Check out what they’re all up to, November 21 through 23, by calling (207) 729-8584.

• And then there are the adults getting not-quite-naked to help local teens. The Nutcracker Burlesque will be at the Portland Stage Studio Theater December 18 through 21 to benefit . . . the Preble Street Teen Center? It’s true. Infidelity at a corporate holiday party leads a grown-up Clara downtown into opium dens and more. Tchaikovsky’s score has been rearranged "into a hot and sultry modern composition" with a "quirky hip-hop style" to the choreography. All of which means we can’t wait to see the Nut-cracking Prince himself, probably sponsored by Video Expo.