Arts Listings

At the Theater: Golden Thread Brings ‘Island of Animals’ to Fremont

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 23, 2006

What if the animal kingdom, in all its vast diversity, filed a class action suit against humanity, for its presumption at designating itself as steward of all the beasts of the world, hunting and domesticating them? 

Something like this happens in Island of Animals, playing this weekend at Fremont’s Park Cinema (converted into a live theater). 

Hafiz Karmali, a director visiting from Paris, has created a stage adaptation of a medieval Islamic fable by the illuminati of the Ikhwan al-Safa, “Brethern of Purity,” a 10th-century scholarly society in Basra (now Iraq) who produced an encyclopedic work on everything from Cosmology and Revelation to Ethics and Aesthetics—a forerunner of the great Humanistic encyclopedias of the Enlightenment of 18th-century Europe. 

When a shipload of men from all countries is wrecked on a “desert isle” abounding in fauna, the humans set up shop as the masters—business as usual. The animals meet with their fellows in each family of beasts—birds of prey, songbirds, creeping things, and so on—and choose representatives to take their case to the wise King of the Jinn (the genies of the Arabian Nights, beings “of smokeless vapor”). While the humans mutter about who to bribe or threaten, the animal representatives sing, twitter, roar, squawk, hiss and buzz their pleading ... but what if there could be found a human as diverse in talents as the animals themselves, one learned and insightful, who embodies the best of the nations of Mankind, mirroring the splendors of heaven and earth?  

The idea of The Perfect Man, long a key notion of many Asian religions as well as Eastern Christianity and Gnosticism-Manichaeanism—and central to Renaissance Humanism and its later secularization—is only one of the philosophical nuggets shared by East and West that glisten throughout this charming show, intended very much as a family entertainment, with much humor and panache.  

A talented cast slips in and out of various guises, both animal and human, with musical timing, from the conducting of the cacophonous “Animal Symphony, in Asia Minor,” to the awkward tenderness of giraffes (to the tune of “Birds Do It, Bees Do It”), to the enormous virtues of the great pachyderms (accompanied by “Elephant Walk”), all represented by gesture and voice, and by a stage splendid with great Islamic art in painted scenery, calligraphy and in projections. 

After a successful run at Thick House on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, this troupe of eight, itself a diverse crew and well-schooled in voice and movement, has sharpened its ensemble work to a fine edge for a piece that constantly shifts in focus, but never wavers in its heartfelt concerns. 

Erika Salazar is an enchanting—and enchanted—King of the Jinn; Joseph Estlack (of Mugwumpin) proves a quick study, whether as a grinning, nodding, agreeable simian, as the King of the Beasts, or of the Bees; Shruti Tewari charms as the Narrator, and pleads in court vocally as The Nightingale; Drea Bernardi and Carol Ellis leap from Frog and Cricket to the Aesopian Kalila and Dimna; John Sousa presents the human's case, and has a laugh as a hyena; Sahar Hojat plays Angel and Griffin and dances, as do her alternating colleagues from Ballet Afsaneh, Tara Pandeya and Aliah Najmabadi, with elegant Persian gesture or whirling as dervishes.  

The Afghan Coalition brought Hafiz Karmali to the Bay Area from Paris, where he is a doctoral candidate in (and translator of) medieval Shi’ite philosophy. He stages Islamic stories using Western theatrical technique after a career directing in North America. Golden Thread Productions, which stages the annual ReOrient Festival of one-acts concerning the Middle East (and much other intercultural activity), is co-producer, and Sharlyn Sawyer of Ballet Afsaneh, choreographer. 

Both Sharlyn and Torange Yeghiazarian of Golden Thread spoke of their enthusiasm in working with such a cosmopolitan theater man and scholar as Hafiz. Torange adding that it has provided the opportunity for her and others “who have been concerned with how religion has influenced the masses, both in the Middle East and here” to “wrestle with religious thought” in a more enlightened context. 

Hafiz Karmali smiled when asked his feelings about the experience. 

“It’s been a pleasure to perform this tale before such diverse—and nearly sold-out!—audiences as we have had here, especially with so many young people ... It is a chance to share this wonderful story and to dispel some of the myths about Islamic civilization.” 



Presented by Golden Thread Productions May 26-29 at Park Cinema, 37411 Fremont Blvd., Fremont. (415) 626-4061.