Saturday, October 21, 2017

Douglas Messerli | The Bird and the Serpent in Love (on Hamid Rahmaian and Viks Menon's Feathers on Fire: A Persian Epic)

by Douglas Messerli

Hamid Rahmanian, writer, adaptor, and designer, co-written by Vikas Menon, music by Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali, based on the book, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, Feathers on Fire: A Persian Epic / Los Angeles, the Wallsin Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts / the performance I attended with Pablo Capra was on October 20, 2017

People who may be wary of attending a so-called puppet show, particularly one that is based on an ancient Iranian text inspired by the 10th century book of epic Persian poetry, Shahnameh, should lay aside their fears, grab up the children, and run to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic.
       First of all, this is not typical “puppet-play”—although I’ve long loved even the most traditional remnants of this medium—but a spectacular and quite lavish, even balletic musical of exquisite shadow-images splashed across the wide-screen installation on that theater’s major stage, the Bram Goldsmith Theater. Eight live actors, dressed themselves in 15 masks and costumes, perform in Larry Reed-inspired protruding masks along with 160 puppets and scenic projections and digital animation, accompanied by the music Iranian-inspired composers Ramin Torkian and Azam Ail of the band Niyaz.
       Secondly the story of two unlikely lovers, Zaul and Rudabeh, living in old Persia reminds one of Romeo and Juliet (but with a positive outcome instead of Shakespeare’s sad tale of the couple’s death) along with dozens of German and Scandinavian folktales including “Rapunzel” and “Peer Gynt,” with a bit of The Odyssey with the Jungle Book thrown in, along with a dash of the Italian myth of Romulus and Remus—Zaul, born with a spectacular crown of white hair, is raised not by a she-wolf but by a large bird female bird.
       Of course, this handsome wanderer is destined to fall in love with his father and the King’s worst enemy, the daughter of the Serpent-King. But somehow he not only gains the Serpent-King’s trust but, after a long voyage back to his own land, despite being attacked with a dragon-like sea-serpent, gains the trust of his father, and, after a thorough testing of his intellectual skills by the King’s trusted advisors, receives permission to marry Rudabeh, returning to save her, just in time, from her being ousted into the desert. Few stories have as many exciting adventures as Feathers of Fire, with such a remarkably happy ending, wherein, after an extremely difficult childbirth, Rudabeh produces the heroic son, Rostam, the true hero of the Shahnameh, one of the greatest of the Persian kings.
        Both of our representative lovers are outsiders, seeking a way to become the center of their formerly closed-off universes. They are all of us who feel we don’t truly belong to the families into which we were born, and, in that respect, they truly do represent all those human-beings who might wonder how they were born into the families in which they suddenly discover themselves.
       The super-energized Hamid Rahmanian created this magical wonderland, rushing, after the tale closed, onto stage in bright red shoes to takes questions from his audience, including many of its youngest members, whose intelligent questions about how he had created this astonishing piece were treated with the greatest of respect. The only question he seemed to be unable to answer is why, on opening night, this production had not, as in most of its runs across North American and numerous other continents, had not sold out. I had already expressed that same question to my accompanying friend, Pablo Capra. “Here we are in one of the largest of the Iranian-born communities in the US, Beverly Hills, with numerous empty seats. How can you explain that?”
       “Tell your friends,” suggested Rahmanian.
       I repeat, pack up your kids or any adult friend and rush over to the remaining 12 performances of Feathers of Fire. You’ll never see such a powerful primitive form of human entertainment again. This is a work that makes you realize that sometimes the simplest of human theater experiences is the very most rewarding and complex.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2017

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