'9 Parts' For One Eloquent Actor

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

We need to be reminded as often as possible that Iraq is more than the sum of its improvised explosive devices. Fortunately, this cause is taken up by Heather Raffo with great eloquence in "9 Parts of Desire," her warm and deeply felt one-woman play at Arena Stage.

The characters she brings so artfully to life -- nine women, Iraqis by birth or descent -- are products of a culture whose ancient roots have been upended and mutilated by one violent debacle after another. The women who inhabit this 90-minute piece are linked by the everyday stress of living in peril, by tragic events past and the prospect of more tragedy around the next corner.

In times of tumult, every civilization breeds its own version of the diaspora. Raffo stitches into her tapestry portraits from both inside and out of the country. Some of her women have stayed in Iraq and paid a price. Some have left and paid another. All, however, are exiles from normalcy, from the basic human desire for peace of mind.

Whether America's involvement in Iraq makes you feel a sense of complicity in the women's complicated struggles is up to you. It isn't Raffo's intention here to instill guilt. "9 Parts of Desire" is not a lecture. Nor is its focus exclusively the chaos that's occurred there since the United States invaded. As with "In the Continuum," the two-person play that recently ended at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, "9 Parts" is a more finely textured examination of women in a culture forced to hide in plain sight.

The motif is loss, whether Raffo is portraying an old woman obsessed with retrieving the sandals of the dead from the Euphrates, or a young girl, a latter-day Anne Frank, holed up in a room and reading the journals of her disappeared father.

America has invested and lost an immense amount, too, in men, materiel and money. Still, Raffo seems to be saying, our responsibility is at least to attempt to view this conflict from other perspectives. In many admirable cases, journalism can put a human face on harsher realities around the world. Indeed, "9 Parts" is very loosely inspired by a book of the same title by Geraldine Brooks, a Wall Street Journal reporter who chronicled the lives of women in the Muslim Middle East.

Journalists do bring the stories close. Sometimes, an actress such as Raffo, the offspring of an American mother and Iraqi father, can bring them closer. (The play's characters are based on women Raffo encountered on her own travels in the country.) A splendid mimic, she's got the protean gift. Accent and bearing change with the shifts in her use of the abaya, a traditional black cloak. Peter West's subtle lighting helps, too. In some of her transformations, she seems to transcend time: The way, for instance, the free-spirited artist who refuses to stop painting seems to exist in a different century from the peasant woman who keeps vigil at the site where her young daughter was incinerated by a bomb.

Raffo's set designer, Antje Ellermann, skillfully trains a figurative mirror on turmoil. Adorning the stage in Arena's Kreeger Theater are scaffolding and rubble, books piled high, broken pavements of mosaics, a bottle of whiskey: fragments of a disintegrating civilized society. Through the middle of the floor flows a river, a symbolic source of the culture's continuity -- its ability, in whatever shape, to endure.

The set is functional, too, with various portions of the stage furnished for different monologues. At one point, for example, the decrepit hospital in which a doctor describes her anguish at the inadequate health care is suggested by a small fragment of white-tiled wall; the river at her feet becomes the canal of raw sewage that makes her retch.

It's the women themselves, however, who provide the production's most concrete manifestations of the paradoxes of contemporary Iraq. Only the slightest hints of a cohesive chain of events peek through in this impressionistic evening. And occasionally, the tangents on which Raffo takes us do lead down paths that seem to belong in other plays. Such is the case with the affable testimony by a Bedouin woman about her varied marriages to three different men. This conveys some of the earthy spirit of a tale by Chaucer, but it feels only loosely integrated into the overall picture.

The character's role may simply be to lighten the mood. While Raffo adds humorous touches, "9 Parts" strikes more contemplative than funny chords. Other characters mesh more powerfully: the little girl who can identify the origin of a bomb by the quality of its hissing; the woman whose daughter, named Tomorrow and killed in a bombing, now poignantly goes by the ironic name of "Mother of Tomorrow"; the political refugee in London who recounts the West's blunders in dealing with Saddam Hussein, culminating in the long embargo that "made Saddam stronger and the country more backwards and religious."

"When the middle class were selling their books on the street in order to eat, they felt the whole world had abandoned them," she goes on. "And this isolation mentality cannot be changed suddenly. This 13 years' embargo just gave the fundamentalists their legitimacy."

It's possible that you've heard thoughts like these spoken dispassionately, by some Middle East expert or other on one cable news channel or another. "9 Parts of Desire" expresses them with a fullness of sorrow that invites us all to count ourselves among the mourners.

9 Parts of Desire , by Heather Raffo. Directed by Joanna Settle. Costumes, Kasia Walicka Maimone; sound, Obadiah Eaves; dialect coach, Lynne Soffer. Through Nov. 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit .

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