Beyond borders

Benedictus draws from a real-life meeting to explore political power games
Ali Pourtash of Benedictus
Photo by Gohar Berseghyan

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An uneasy double consciousness attends the able and purposeful world premiere of Benedictus — now up at the Thick House — whose plot concerns a back-channel effort to avert an impending US invasion of Iran. An international collaboration two years in the making, Golden Thread's 10th anniversary season opener moves in uncanny lockstep with today's headlines, which reflect the increasingly aggressive push from the outlaw centers of American power for yet another and wider war in the Middle East.

Benedictus (a project cocreated by Iranian director Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Israeli playwright Lotti Lerner, dramaturge and Theatre Without Borders cofounder Roberta Levitow, designer Daniel Michaelson, and Golden Thread artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian) opens with the secret reunion of two old school friends, one Muslim and one Jewish, both Iranian born, and both former activists in the politically broad-based mass uprising that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's CIA-installed dictator, in 1979. That revolution was, of course, eventually co-opted by the right-wing fundamentalist bloc under Ayatollah Khomeini, and since then Asher Muthada (Ali Pourtash) has emigrated to Israel and become an arms merchant, while his friend Ali Kermani (Al Faris) has become part of the reform movement within the Islamic republic.

A mere 72 hours before the United States plans to launch its secret attack, Kermani (wise to the countdown) has arranged the meeting with his old chum in the relatively neutral and secluded grounds of a Benedictine monastery. But Muthada arrives first. He's a nervous ball of energy, and after shooing away his overly solicitous hostess (a nun played by Lisa Tateosian) he habitually overturns the decor in an effort to unearth any microphones. This first impression of supreme distrust amid a web of John le Carré–type espionage is belied, or at least made more complex, by the affectionate reunion of the two men. In the smooth and genial performances by Pourtash and Faris, Muthada immediately becomes expansive and dryly witty as Kermani, with a gentle air of cosmopolitan tact, arrives in his mullah's robes and wire-framed glasses and inquires into his friend's health.

In the conversation that follows they rehearse (in dialogue inevitably somewhat didactic but overall nuanced and unforced) the historic events that have passed through their lives, the betrayed promise of the revolution, the political machinations in each of their countries that play on external fears for internal gain, and so on. But there's a more immediate concern and a deal to be brokered. Kermani, with his eye on the Iranian presidency, wants Muthada's help in getting his peace proposal to the Americans in time to avert the bombing. For his part, Muthada wants his sister and her family ensured a safe exit from Iran, which is loath to let her go.

(The quasi-familial complexity of relationships here is inspired by a real-life incident: the 2005 chance meeting between then–Iranian president Mohammad Khatami — on whom Kermani is clearly based — and then–Israeli president Moshe Katsav, who were seated alphabetically beside each other at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and ended up exchanging pleasantries in Farsi, being compatriots from the same Iranian province.)

The tentative arrangement reached by Muthada and Kermani leads to an increasingly revealing but politically frustrating set of further meetings, some involving a US ambassador, Ben Martin (Earll Kingston).

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