Baghdad's Theater of War

Fikret Salim, 24, plays a bully in
Fikret Salim, 24, plays a bully in "The Intensive Care Unit," a one-act play at Baghdad's National Theater that satirizes the country's ruined state. (By Ernesto Londoño -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

BAGHDAD The curtain rose on a barren stage. An actor lying with his back to the audience snored loudly. Stage right, a skinny young woman in a floral print dress used her hands to drag her crippled body forward.

"Mother, mother, I am sick," she said in a low, hoarse voice. "Call me the doctor, quickly quick."

A car bomb, the audience would soon discover, had blown her legs to shreds.

"Mother, mother, I am sick," she continued, progressively louder, uttering the play's only English lines. "Call me the doctor, quickly quick."

A cast of rowdy, histrionic characters soon joined her onstage for another matinee at Baghdad's renowned National Theater -- the nucleus of Iraq's rebounding theater community and one of the few spots in this inhospitable capital where the prevailing mood is jovial, the rules of fashion are lax and creative ideas flourish. A few feet outside the building's metal fence, inset with gold-painted masks, soldiers man checkpoints ringed with concertina wire.

"The Intensive Care Unit," a one-act play, satirizes the country's ruined state. Cast members -- university students and recent graduates -- also portray a broken-hearted lover, a poet without a muse, an actor with no stage and a man hunched over from frantically searching for his lost ID. There's also a sweeper, a theater director, an Iraqi who wants to be a Westerner, a bully and The Authority, a stoic man in a long black coat to whom they all turn for guidance.

The cast includes Sunnis, Shiites and a Christian. The actors are unpaid and most are unemployed. Performances are held only during the day, because the city turns into a ghost town after dark. There is no entrance fee. Audience members, most of whom are fellow actors or friends of cast members, are frisked for weapons and explosives as they enter.

Despite the long odds and perils, the actors say, there's nowhere they'd rather be than onstage.

"What we have is love of theater," the play's director, Kahil Khalid, said one day, standing in the darkened and dusty lobby of the once-grand theater. "If we wanted money, we would go looting."

The company this year received a small stipend from the Iraqi government, but that didn't even cover the cost of taking cabs to rehearsals, the actors said. Their wardrobe is simple, drawn mostly from their own closets. Their only props: debris collected at the scene of a car bombing -- a burned tire, a shredded shoe, school supplies -- piled in the lobby.

"Our play is a miniature of our reality," said Rita Casber, 24, the only woman in the cast. "It conveys the reality the people in Iraq are subjected to."

The cast lost two actors after rehearsals began several months ago. One man, a Sunni, was displaced from his neighborhood by Shiite militia members. The woman first cast in the role of the crippled girl backed out after opening night because she received an anonymous threat for wearing a tank top onstage.

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