Next Theatre Production a War Zone Masterpiece

If, like me, you support the arts in theory but in reality don't get out and take in as much culture as you'd like (perhaps because you spend too many evenings at the Civic Center), then you owe it to yourself to take a night off sometime in the next 2 weeks and experience Next Theatre's blockbuster production, 9 Parts of Desire, currently playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art (thru 5/18). Next artistic director Jason Loewith promised that this would be the best show of their season, which seemed hard to believe given their tense and powerful staging of John Patrick Shanley's Defiance this winter, but they deliver and then some. This one-woman tour-de-force by Heather Raffo, just coming off a highly-praised 9-month run on Broadway, brought lumps to throats, tears to eyes, and the audience at the preview performance on May 3 to a long, heartfelt standing ovation.

On paper, this didn't portend an evening of my ideal entertainment. Entirely conceived, written, and performed by Raffo, an Iraqi-American, 9 Parts is a theatrical "mosaic" that weaves together the experiences of nine different women, from young to old, from Baghdad to New York, over a number of years ranging from Saddam Hussein's brutal regime to the different but equally brutal conditions wrought upon Iraq by two U.S. bombings and invasions, and subsequent chaos.

Raffo, herself a lithe blonde of indeterminate age but extraordinary energy, is onstage for a solid 90 minutes, squeezing every possible ounce of imaginary reality from a beautiful, creative, and brilliant set (by the original Broadway designer Antje Ellermann) that manages to include on one stage living rooms in America and London, the sandbagged rubble of a bombed-out neighborhood, and a river (with real water). Raffo's "costume changes" are no more than the wrap of a chador or flamboyant wave of an artist's smock while lights dim for a second. Yet she pulls off seemingly impossible transitions, from pre-teens to village elders, from elite exiles numbing their pain with whiskey to grandmothers reduced to desperate means, and imbues each with convincing and heartwarming believability.

Joanna Settle directs, and surely deserves credit, although I imagine that directing in this case bears more resemblance to lion-taming or managing a heavyweight boxer than to what we normally conceive of as maneuvering a cast through a drama.

The play is ultimately political, but what does that mean? As Tommy Lee Jones frequently says (attributing it to Camus), "Every breath you take is a political act." The politics here, while powerful, are more personal than polemic, more individual than international, and less predictable than any presidential candidate's speech. Put it this way: the play has gotten raves not only from liberal reviewers, but from the Wall Street Journal. Be assured, to see 9 Pieces is not to be preached at (my fear in going to see any political piece, even if I agree with it), so much as to have arrayed before you, like an extraordinary buffet, a montage of many realities, all at the most basic levels of human connectedness, presented with a beauty and a passion that left much of the audience speechless.

Note: while the play is lovely and poignant, it is at moments stark and vivid. Because of the mature nature of some of the material, I would not bring children younger than middle-school age to the show.

Our preview/premier audience was heavily weighted with Next subscribers and thus Evanston and neighboring community residents. Next Theatre normally resides at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center but this production demanded a bigger stage, and the steeper stadium-type seating of the MCA's theater room was a superb complement to the rich texture of the set design. Although I am a big fan of spending locally, it's good to get out once in a while; the Water Tower neighborhood of the MCA makes for a lovely stroll, and the relatively short length of the piece meant there was still plenty of time to find a restaurant with the kitchen still open after the show (to hold onto the feeling of the world we'd entered, we got some Middle Eastern fare).

The MCA is 4 blocks east of the Chicago Avenue stop on the Red Line; parking is available in the MCA's structure; if you get your ticket validated in the theatre, it's about $11, not too bad for the Loop. The play runs through May 18, with tickets starting at $18 for MCA members and no more than $38 for the choicest seats and nights for non-members; most tickets are in the $20s. For performance dates and times, see the Next Theatre website (which also has reviews and other info) or MCA website.