Darvag, the East Bay theater company now staging Bahram Beyzaie’s Death of Yazdgerd at Ashby Stage through this weekend, has produced plays since 1985, often in Farsi.
But Death of Yazdgerd is an opportunity for English-speaking audiences to experience an unusual, poetic drama that traces contemporary themes in an historical setting unfamiliar to many outside the Iranian community.
The brief but informative program notes give the known facts: Yazdgerd III was the last of the Sassanid kings of Iran. His death in 651, during the Arab invasions that brought Islam to this Zoroastrian realm, was mysterious: his corpse was discovered in a mill, but the cause of his death—and the whereabouts of his remains—are unknown.
Beyzaie’s poetic inquiry begins where the scant history leaves off—in the mill where Yazdgerd’s body lies in state on a bloody millstone, a priest prays over him (covered by a gold mask and his robes) while an army commander passes a brutal death sentence on the miller, his wife and daughter for their evident responsibility for the death of the king. The commander orders a captain to raise a gallows. The family protests.
They begin to tell their story—of the arrival of the king disguised as a beggar. Then, one by one, they act it out as they tell, donning the crown and eventually using the golden mask to act out the part of the king. Each takes a turn, beginning with the miller, as the story shifts, more questions come up than are answered, and the point of view subtly changes.
Did the king command—and pay for—his own murder? Did he seduce the miller’s wife, demand his daughter? Who really knows who the king is, anyway? Who’s really looked upon his face? The roles change ‘round, the wife playing king as the miller plays himself, reversing an earlier vignette . . . the priest and soldiers in turn grow angry, threatening, confused, wary.
Clearly, the themes are universal enough, and the play-acting of the accused might seem like an Absurdist parable. But Death of Yazdgerd has ironies that are both deeper and more direct. It’s from that old tradition in theater and literature that talks about things close up through a story that’s far away in time or space. Ironically, the most famous example of this in European literature would be Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which he satirized France by talking about Persia.
Beyzaie seems to be using the mystery of the death of the last pre-Islamic shah to speak of the career and death of a more recent one, also followed by an Islamic takeover. There are matters of corruption from top to bottom in both cases. The miller and his family protest their innocence, their humble honesty—but soon show their wiliness, their ability to compromise the truth and themselves.
As the notes go on to say, “If a king’s glory was lost due to his misdeeds, his reign was doomed to collapse. In such an event, it was a common belief that only the king’s death could spare the country from further disaster.”
Darvag’s production shows great energy, especially in the acting of the miller and his family. Though a modern play, it’s poetic and rhetorical—something English-speaking audiences aren’t as used to as they once were—realism is our current stylization. But despite great presence and voice by Richard Louis James, Bella Warda (co-founder of Darvag) and Sara Razavi as the miller and his family—and real stage presence by Ali Dadgar as the commander, Nicholas A. Olivero as the captain and D. Anthony Harper as the priest—Evren Odcikin’s stage direction didn’t come up to his evident conception of the play.
Lines and movement were both strung to a high pitch throughout; there was none of the play of dynamics that would have brought out the subtle turnings of the text into clearer relief onstage. As the miller’s family acts, the others are left to stand and listen; surely some stylized business or attitude would have made them reflexive to the action?
The impression that remains, though, is of the implications of the play, so Darvag put it across. There are wonderful exchanges:
“Everything we have comes from the King.”
“What are you saying, man? We have nothing!”
“Even that comes from the King!”
Or, after proclaiming that history is written by the victors, they bemoan “a hopeless war . . . from him we inherited a world we could not defend”—and they wonder how they’ll explain it all to the real victors . . .
Bahram Beyzaie’s script, in Manuchehr Anvar’s translation, is delicious theater.