Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Running Amok By Beverly Creasey

The New Repertory Theatre transports us to Afghanistan this fall for a deeply personal story amidst political upheaval. Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, THE KITE RUNNER, is getting a solid and heartfelt production, playing through Sept.30th.

Afghanistan has endured the heavy footprints of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mongols, the British, the Russians and in recent history, the U.S. When the American ambassador was assassinated in 1979, the U.S. began supplying guns to the guerilla mujahideen. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was Jimmy Carter’s reason for boycotting the 1980 Olympics.

Until then, what most Americans knew about Afghanistan came from British cinema, films about “heroic” battles for control of the Khyber Pass (which of course glorified the Brits). Then we started seeing Dan Rather’s news reports from the mujahideen mountain camps. We knew little of the Taliban and even less about Al Qaeda. Now we instantly know everything about war in Kandahar province but nothing about the people.

THE KITE RUNNER was the first novel published in English by an author from Afghanistan. It’s an allegory about betrayal and redemption as well as a psychological study of survival. Where war is impersonal, THE KITE RUNNER humanizes every blow. When the story begins, children are happily flying kites and dreaming of having theirs take first place at the festival. Amir is from a wealthy family and his playmate is the son of his father’s faithful servant. Hassan performs the task of kite running for his friend, meaning he watches the wind to see where a kite will land and then he fetches it, even if it has strayed to another neighborhood.

Hassan would do anything for Amir but jealousy fuels Amir’s resentment when his father pays more attention, he thinks, to the sweet servant boy. The consequences of young Amir’s hostility are tragic. Then war spells tragedy for everyone.

Director Elaine Vaan Hogue and company create a lovely tableau of colored kites aloft over the audience. Then they create the opposite. The brutality is just as vivid. THE KITE RUNNER depicts the cruelty most of us do not want to see. (That’s the point of the play, after all.) The New Rep cast executes both with remarkable detail.

Nael Nacer as Amir has the difficult task of redeeming his character after almost unforgivable transgressions. Luke Murtha radiates goodness as Amir’s self-sacrificing friend, Hassan, the kite runner. Johnnie McQuarley and Ken Baltin, as the boys’ respective fathers, convey their heartbreak without uttering a word. Paige Clark is stellar in a number of roles, especially the general’s daughter. She and Dale Place, as her strictly “old world” father, provide the gentle humor of the piece.

Robert Najarian’s staging of the violence is so effective, that I had to turn my head away. I found it too disturbing. I was bothered, as well, by the character of Assef, the villain of the story. We only really meet one villain (to stand in for all the villains, as this is an allegory) and he rapes young boys. (There are soldiers in the story who commit atrocities but, for the most part, they’re unrecognizable and we hear nothing of their lives.)

We follow Assef from childhood to adulthood, when he matures from a psychopathic bully into a rebel leader with henchmen who steal boys for him to molest. It’s that spurious, baseless stereotype that homosexuals prefer little boys. It’s as if the author wanted to make the villain as terrible as he could, so he threw that canard into the story. In my opinion, it mars the piece. Other than that, THE KITE RUNNER makes a powerful statement against war. There never has been, as Ben Franklin famously said, a good war or a bad peace.