Revisiting the ReOrient

Golden Thread's festival of plays exploring the Middle East turns 10
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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER It's the fall of 2001. The Americans have arrived. The Taliban is, for the moment, displaced. A young Afghani woman named Alya (Sara Razavi) stands in a burka, holding a suitcase. She's met by her older sister, Meena (Nora el Samahy), returned from England to fetch her. Meena wears a headscarf but leaves her face proudly, fearlessly uncovered. She speaks of the freedoms ahead of them, the chance to study, even to talk to men. Alya is scandalized and fascinated.

The two sisters go on to engage in petty quarrels, teasing. Meena calls the younger one a hedgehog, a familiar nickname apparently, while noting she's gained a woman's figure since Meena has been away. Alya complains of her aching back — the result, she claims, of quills sprouting along her spine. Meena tells her about being carried one night by a gallant English stranger, leaving her sister beside herself with moral outrage and prurient interest.

All the while, nearby, the body of a young American soldier (Basel Al-Naffouri) lies sprawled on a large pillow. He's soon on his feet — or socks rather, his boots having disappeared — ostensibly having slept off a night of revelry. Regarding the two young women in his room with some surprise, and self-congratulation, he confronts what he believes to be the previous night's "conquests." He also seems to think he's awoken in his mother's house in Gary, Ind. He shouts for his mother and wonders aloud where his shoes have gone, but his cries are literally bootless.

We appear to have wandered into a dream — but whose exactly? Naomi Wallace's No Such Cold Thing unsettles the ground beneath our feet much as her characters have found it vanishing beneath their own. The characters now meet on some existential plateau — pitched, dreamlike, somewhere between life and death — as Wallace expertly pinpoints the reality of war in the magical-surreal of dramatic imagination.

In a moment characterized by a decided lack of public antiwar momentum around the continuing tragedy of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the world premiere of Wallace's No Such Cold Thing could not be timelier. Nor, for that matter, could it be a more apt play to lead off Golden Thread Productions' 10th anniversary edition of its ReOrient Festival, an annual cavalcade of short plays about the Middle East that has itself provided, in addition to a dependable variety of aesthetic pleasures, crucial space for public consideration and dialogue.

This year's anniversary program makes the most of that function with an accompanying two-day forum (Dec. 5-6 at Theatre Artaud) to include discussion panels, a book launch, an art exhibit, music and dance performances, and Golden Thread's first live internet-streamed play, The Review, written by GT stalwart Yussef El Guindi (Back of the Throat; Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes), featuring one actor in San Francisco and another in the Middle East.

In addition to Wallace's quietly striking world premiere — which finds a winning balance of playful insouciance and poignant understatement in the hands of director Bella Warda and her cast — the dramatic program includes eight more plays spread over two rotating series. Emphasizing highlights of previous years, ReOrient 2009's opening night program included a remounting of Betty Shamieh's Taman, directed by GT artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian, a dual "monologue" from the perspective of a proud and embattled Palestinian woman, featuring el Samahy and Maryam Farnaz Rostami tastefully accompanied by percussionist Su Tang.

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