ReOrient, in its sixth year of “exploring Middle Eastern culture and identity as represented throughout the globe,” is a festival of short plays staged by Golden Thread Productions that’s opening this weekend at the Ashby Stage after a run at SF’s Noh Space.
ReOrient is becoming a Bay Area institution without losing that sense of being a well-kept (maybe too well-kept) secret that delights whoever discovers it, bringing them back every year. The excellent second series of three plays is playing in alternation with the first series, of five plays.
The first play, “Don’t Eat the Tomatoes” is by Fatma Durmush, a Turkish woman poet and playwright, born in Cyprus, who writes in English. This is a strangely humorous tale of a young couple setting up housekeeping by a graveyard thronged with mothers whose sons were killed in the terroristic war with the Kurds. Durmush’s play takes stylized dreamlike turns that could be called Absurdist, for want of a better term to describe an original poetic logic.
The mourning mothers become tomato plants, bear tomatoes (”In truth, the more sorrow, the better they taste”) and find peace; the young wife, pregnant and abandoned by her husband, markets this cemetery crop and becomes a consumer; her errant husband, newly educated (”To live without reason is worse than being a tomato!”) and weary of cities, returns.
The situation of the Kurds in Turkey and the controversy around Kurdish militant Abdullah Ocalan’s condemnation to death isn’t so well known here. Torange Yeghiazarian (Golden Thread’s founder-artistic director) has directed this play with the sense of a parable or fable, underlining what’s in common with our own interminable War On Terror, and its almost familial social and cultural resentments.
The second, “Compression of a Casualty,” by Brooklyn playwright Kevin Doyle, plays the fatuous smiles and mannerisms of TV news anchors announcing a death in Fallujah, then “moving on,” against the young fallen GI trying to recapitulate his own life and death amid the repetitions of teleprompter copy. Such a brief description misses the true compression and offbeat pace of banal, brutal meta-language with Laura Hope’s taut direction of three fine actors (Tiffany Harrison, Patrick MacKellan, Zak Kilberg) that drive this piece.
“Dinner/Khnamakhos” by Lilly Thomassian—again with fine direction, by Meredith Weiss Friedman—is the barely-controlled madness of a dinner party in an Armenian home in Glendale to celebrate an arranged marriage. No one can see or hear the bride-to-be (Sara Luna), commenting on the crazy comic melodrama her family and the groom’s are playing out around the table. The groom-to-be looks oddly familiar—and he finally remembers where he’s seen her eyes before (as he stares at her picture with the bride-to-be looking over his shoulder). A chamber play out of one of Bunuel’s surreal movies, Sheri Bass, Maximilienne Ewalt, Ann Marie Donahue and Lisa Tateosian (all from “Don’t Eat the Tomatoes”) and David Fierro make a savage portrait of two families.
The first series features “Chocolate in Heat, Growing Up Arab in America,” written and performed by Betty Shamieh; “Disheartened,” by Melgis Bilgin, “Between the Eyes,” by MacArthur Award winner Naomi Wallace; “Falling,” by William Borden (about the World Trade Center); and “Taziyeh” (the name of the Shi’ite passion play of Hussain’s martyrdom at Karbala) by Novid Parsi.
Golden Thread Productions’ ReOrient 2004 Sixth Annual Festival of Short Plays Exploring the Middle East runs Oct. 15-24, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Series 2 will run Oct. 15, 17, 22, and 24 matinee. Series 1 will run Oct. 16, 17 matinee, 21 and 23. There will be no show the evening of Oct. 24. The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., 986.9194, www.goldenthread.org.