Archive for October, 2011

Worlds Collide in Keith Anwar’s Kabulitis

Monday, October 24th, 2011

by Darren Callahan

Keith Anwar’s Kabulitis had a long and exciting trip to the stage, one guided by the steady hands of director Lavina Jadhwani, who is also Artistic Director of Rasaka Theatre Company and Richard Engling, Artistic Director of Polarity Ensemble Theatre, who also served as the show’s script dramaturg. The script had been in development with Polarity since being selected for the 2010 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, in which it took top honors. Working together, the two companies have brought the script to a unique and original full production for the Chicago stage.

In an interview from her Chicago home, Ms. Jadhwani spoke of the play’s challenges and her tactics for delivering.

Lavina Jadhwani

Director Lavina Jadhwani charts the course.

“For me, the play is about the character of Mildred and her family’s struggle to figure out how best to support her, while simultaneously try to determine what sort of connection they want to maintain with their past in Kabul, especially in the wake of 9/11.”

Mildred, suffering from late-life dementia, struggles with the good-hearted, but off-target suggestions of her son, who lobbies his mother to move from her home into a full-time care facility. Mildred refuses to go. Confused by the identities of her granddaughter and an Afghani girl taken from her decades earlier, and haunted by ghosts in her basement, she is constantly reminded of her past. Decades before, she lived in Afghanistan as the Western wife of a progressive Afghani husband. With these waves of regret and the instability of the present, the play is a maze of Mildred’s shifting psyche.

“It’s interesting that the play is called Kabulitis,” says Jadhwani, “because the central storyline is very much about Mildred and her son, negotiating their relationship in the wake of her diagnosis.” As a result, we see the flashbacks to her time in Afghanistan (and particular the portrayal of the Mullah and the villain Da’ud) through the lens of her memory. The design team and the director worked together closely to create a world that would be most accurate to the character’s memory and experiences.

Jadhwani was attracted to the character-driven focus of Keith Anwar’s semi-autobiographical story. Though the material is bound to be considered “educational” – meant in the best sense, in that it reveals the deeper struggles of mid-century Afghanistan, a tense time for sexual equality and progressive politics, and puts what we know into sharp relief with Afghanistan today. However, despite the history lesson, the play uncovers the universal connection in the micro-struggles of a family. “I find that a lot of the humanity in the play comes from the humor and finding the moments to laugh in the face of adversity,” continues the director. “So we are leaning in to that, whenever possible.”

Playwright Keith Anwar passed away shortly after completing the final draft of Kabulitis. Therefore, Richard Engling has served as the script’s dramaturg. “He has been a great resource for any questions I’ve had,” Jadhwani says. “On a few occasions, this has resulted in small rewrites, but for the most part the script remains as Keith wrote it.”

Kabulitis is produced by Polarity in association with Rasaka with a multi-ethnic cast and a global story. When asked about the difficulties of directing this kind of collaboration, Jadhwani replies, “There’s a wealth of dramaturgical material to explore, the actors are working with elaborate back stories and navigating difficult dialects, and the design team has the challenge of creating an environment that can span half of the globe and over 60 years.”

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling comments on the collaboration: “We wanted the very best possible production for Keith’s play. Working with Rasaka and bringing in Lavina to direct seemed to me a natural choice for digging deeper into the cultural aspects of the script. Whenever we do a new script, our goal is to make it the definitive production. We want to bring out the playwright’s vision to the greatest degree possible.”

At the end of the day, Jadhwani’s approach to the work goes beyond the cultural to the specifically human. She focuses on creating clear relationships between characters, compelling moment-to-moment work in the individual scenes. This work included establishing clear “rules” of the world (especially in a play the features so many flashbacks and memories), and building a strong arc for the piece.

When asked about the enormous challenges of casting – for multi-cultural, to a wide range of ages – Jadhwani admits the process took over a month to complete. In the end, though, she achieved standout performances by all. “I am extremely proud of our cast, their talent, and their level of professionalism, so I consider that time well spent!”

POLARITY GOES TO THE MOVIES!

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Theatre and film have inter-twined for more than a century now.  Theater artists were some of the first people in front of and behind the camera – just after the inventors made the technology a reality.

Since the zoetrope, people have looked for real people to take the place of cut-out figurines, to trick the eye into believing movement, but also to have them believe emotion.  And now, in the modern age, from the glimpse of long-dead Gene Kelly dancing like I’m sure he never intended to whatever the hell James Cameron is trying to do with face replacement in Avatar, despite our best efforts, real people cannot be replaced.  And those people usually start on stages.  There’s a few “straight to movie stars” out there – your John Travoltas, your Kevin Costners.  But for the most part, everyone starts on the stage.  Just like rock bands start in bars.

Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s been a great home to theatre artists for many years now.  But theatre snobs they are not.  They have a rich connection with film and media that I’ve always admired.  From the stunning trailer to their original work, The White Airplane, to the uber-cool stop motion trailer for last year’s Ephemera to the projected films on the back-screen of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Don’t forget the documentary-style teaser for this season’s Kabulitis, or the filmed versions of scenes, such as those for Ghost Watch, and Long Day’s Journey

Jim Luning, creator of the trailer for Ephemera, is a renowned documentary filmmaker.  His Route 66: Ten Years Later is an entering extension of a previously published photo-laced coffee table book.

Recently, Sarah Grant, who was one of your android escorts in Ephemera, was cast in Under the Table, a horror film directed by Darren Callahan.

Sarah Grant

Sarah Grant

Callahan also directed Polarity’s Death & Devils, a play featured in the 2010 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.  “I saw Sarah in a relatively small role in Ephemera,” says Callahan, “I just thought she played it fully.  She was really invested in it.  She didn’t bring unusual attention to herself, except in the exactness of the performance, but she stood out to me.  And, well, I just happened to be casting something right then where she would be perfect.”

Sarah Grant and Ellen Green

Sarah Grant and Ellen Green

Callahan’s horror flick originated on the stage as well – as a festival piece at Chicago’s PROP THTR.

Darren Callahan's Under the Table

Darren Callahan's Under the Table

It also features Stefin Steberl, Ashley Ann Woods, and Kristy Scheuer — all veterans of Polarity.  The film was produced by John Klein of Glass City Films who, along with partners Cole Simon, Mike Molenda, and Matt Oliva helped create the Ephemera Video Diaries, three amazing behind-the-scenes mini-docs about the Polarity production.  If you haven’t seen them, you should:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29Vy-Y6NOZY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V-cM4iGOP8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn84Round1w

People collaborating, interesting work being done, preserved, discarded, ignored, praised – it’s all part of the marriage of film and theatre.  And Polarity is the preacher.

Afghanistan and Kabulitis

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

by Aoife Carolan, Cultural Dramaturg

Amanullah Khan

Amanullah Khan

Kabulitis is set, in part, when the playwright’s Afghan father, M.H. Anwar, returned to Afghanistan with his American wife in the 1940s, during a period of great upheaval in Afghan history. After the abdication and exile of the progressive monarch, Amanullah Khan, in 1929, Afghanistan endured a prolonged and difficult state of transition as different tribal leaders battled for power. Nadir Khan, who had been Amanullah’s Minister of War, finally triumphed, founding the Musahiban monarchy, Afghanistan’s last royal family. After Nadir Khan’s assassination in 1933, his son ascended to the throne at nineteen years of age. His uncle Hashim Khan took on the role of Prime Minister for the next two decades and effectively ruled on his nephew’s behalf.

Hashim Khan

Hashim Khan

Hashim Khan established the Musahiban’s reign by prioritizing border stability and military strength. He abolished Amanullah’s Soviet policies, which had sought to improve the rights and education available to women, and grew closer to Germany. Afghanistan benefited greatly from increased trade, training and friendship with Germany before World War Two but remained neutral to appease Britain and the USSR and stave off the ever-looming threat of invasion. Amidst this external pressure, progress within Afghan society ground to a halt as Hashim Khan relied on religious law to govern the people.

MAP OF AFGHANISTAN’S MAJOR ETHNIC GROUPS

MAP OF AFGHANISTAN’S MAJOR ETHNIC GROUPS

“[Hashim Khan] sedulously curried the toleration of the khans and mullahs, particularly among the dominant Pushtuns, by excluding foreign influences, reining in modernization and acceding to tribal prerogatives at the local level. The ulema (Islamic clergy) enforced Koranic law throughout the country. During this period, young men who returned to Afghanistan from their studies abroad armed with notions of forging a unified republic to lead Afghanistan into the modern world ran up against a mud wall of resistance.” [Keith Anwar, Afterword, Memories of Afghanistan]

M.H. Anwar

M.H. Anwar

M.H. Anwar was called before Hashim Khan regularly to defend his wife, who refused to wear the chaderi or live in seclusion. Eventually, it was clear to the Anwars that their efforts to introduce new ideas were not being heard and their safety was becoming increasingly threatened. They were finally forced into exile in 1943.

In the 1970s and 1980s, after the collapse of the monarchy, a civil war and the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan began to make some serious progress with women’s rights under a Soviet-supported Communist Party government . These reforms gave women, the opportunity to work and greater control in issues of health, marriage and education. But the brutal Soviet occupation, which had killed over a million Afghans, tore the country apart and created the conditions for religious fanaticism and terrorist groups. Another grueling civil war led to the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the seizure of power by the Taliban regime, a militant Islamist group notorious for their brutality and terrorism, in 1996.

Phyllis Anwar

Phyllis Anwar

The Taliban maintained the policies the Mujahideen, a union of seven parties of fundamentalists, had put in place as the interim government during the civil war. They had systematically dismissed all female public figures, television presenters and civil servants and closed down the schools for girls. The laws and prohibitions they put in place, based on their interpretation of Sharia Law, were more severe than any other regime in Afghanistan’s history or any other Muslim state. They also established a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which mandated that “Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home.” [Hafizullah Emadi, Politics of the Dispossessed: Superpowers and Developments in the Middle East, p. 44]

The Anwar Family

The Anwar Family

Most of Kabulitis is set in January 2002, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. For the Anwar family, who were deeply invested in the social progress of Afghan society, the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan would have been a tragic obliteration of their hopes for its people. The subsequent war between their two countries would have surely been a sad and conflicting affair. Afghanistan is a country always in flux, which has not yet been privileged with the stability and independence necessary to found and nurture a united society.

Read more about Kabulitis.