Noura Captivates at the Guthrie Theater

Photo by Dan Norman

Noura written by Heather Raffo is inspired by A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, but stands on it’s own as a dynamic and moving work that explores the question of identity. The Guthrie Theater has assembled a brilliant cast that brings a complex and dramatic script to life. I’m going to dispense with the Ibsen comparison right away. If you’re familiar with A Doll’s House, you will see the connections that exist. If you’re not, it will not hamper your enjoyment one bit. If I hadn’t recently seen A Doll’s House and known that there was a link, I doubt if I’d even have made the connection. It’s obvious when you are very familiar with Ibsen’s play, but this is not a modern retelling. Noura is it’s own story, it shares a structure and some character motivations with the original, but it has its own soul.

Noura and her husband Tareq and son Yazen have spent the last 8 years since fleeing Iraq becoming United States citizens. They have changed their names to Nora, Tim and Alex, a change that Noura is not as excited about as the males in the family. It’s Christmas Eve and they are getting ready for the holiday, preparing traditional Iraqi foods, and wrapping presents. They expect two guests for Christmas dinner Maryam, an orphan from Iraq who Noura has sponsored but never met, and their childhood friend Rafa’a, a Doctor. Both stop over on Christmas Eve and reveal something to Noura which she did not expect. Those secrets and what they represent bring to the forefront other hidden feelings and details from the past. Noura struggles with the difference between how she grew up, surrounded by family and neighbors and how things are in America, which is more about the individual and less about the community. Her husband is more comfortable with the American lifestyle and wants his family to stop looking back and to move forward as Americans. But as secrets are revealed, we see that in many ways he too is stuck in the past. There are so many ideas at play in the work, from gender roles, the loss of culture and assimilation of another, to the nature of human sexuality and it’s differences between cultures. Noura is a women struggling to determine what she wants and how to move forward. We see that from the beginning and as more and more is piled onto her, the way forward becomes more and more paradoxical.

Noura is played by Gamze Ceylan. Noura could be played, by a lesser actor, as a bundle of contradictions. Noura wants different things and they are not always compatible. Ceylan somehow always makes it clear to us that she understands the disconnect and we understand her motivations within a given moment. She’s not a string of random acts, it all comes from her character. Ceylan clearly has an understanding of that character and so she feels real to us. Whether she is being a loving mother to Yazen or having a devastatingly candide argument with Tareq, she is absolutely in the moment, a truly mesmerizing performance. Tareq as played by Fajer Kaisi is a much more dimensional character than Torvald is in Ibsen’s play. He is not the domineering and controlling master of the house, but her partner. Kaisi shines when he revealed his long held secret thoughts, they are ugly and hypocritical and also painfully human. Kaisi expertly shows us the ugly side of his character while still letting us see that he is a man, with good and bad in him, not a villain. Layan Elwazani who plays Maryam, and Kal Naga who plays Rafa’a are both excellent in their roles. They are a contrast to Noura and Tareq, they seem to know who they are and what they want. They’ve both moved on from their pasts and don’t feel the push and pull that Noura does. Yazen is played on alternating nights by Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna, I believe I saw Krishna on the night I attended. I was taken with how natural he seemed as a member of this family, his interactions with the others seemed comfortable. It’s impressive for such a young actor to achieve that level of naturalness on stage.

Taibi Magar’s direction must be credited for making an evening of theater so filled with big ideas, difficult concepts, some truly horrifying realities such a pleasure. I recently saw a production that dealt with some similarly heavy themes and material and it was a chore to sit through and think about. This show engaged the audience so that the darker moments were more keenly felt rather than simply putting the audience off. There are difficult themes and subject matter in this play but it is never difficult to watch. I don’t know when I was this engaged to the point where I wasn’t watching actors read lines but people communicating with each other. That indicates a sure hand at the wheel guiding the actors and pacing the action perfectly. You’d think after years of attending the Guthrie I’d stop being amazed by their sets, but I always am. Matt Saunders Scenic design and Reza Behjat’s Lighting Design combine to create a space that represents not just an apartment, but also the block it’s located on. It’s on a scale which places the action within the apartment into a larger world. The Uhaul boxes that make up the walls of their apartment symbolizing that Noura has still not fully unpacked in America, a part of her is still in Iraq.

Noura is theater of ideas made concrete and real by the contradictions within the characters. Those contradictions reflect our own uncertainties in life. This is must attend theater, it is engaging, thought provoking and moving. Noura is brought into existence by an excellent cast lead by Gamze Ceylan and Fajer Kaisi. The play runs through Feb 16th for more information and tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/ .

Steel Magnolias at the Guthrie Theater Laughs Guaranteed, Kleenex Recommended.

Amy Van Nostrand, Adelin Phelps, Melissa Maxwell, Austene Van and Nicole King. Photo by Dan Norman

Imagine you are an actor and the curtain is about to rise on a performance as you realize you don’t have your lines memorized. Add to that, you are performing at the Guthrie Theater in it’s 700 seat McGuire Proscenium Stage. Well, that is probably something like what Laura Leffler the Assistant Director of Steel Magnolias felt at the Saturday November 9th’s Matinee performance. Sally Wingert stepped out onstage before the beginning of the show and informed the audience that a member of the cast was very ill, and that the Assistant Director Laura Leffler, who had been there through all the rehearsals, had agreed to step in. We were told that she would be reading from a script. The MVP for that days production was without a doubt Laura Leffler. In true “the show must go on” tradition, Ms Leffler stepped up and ensured that a theater full of people who had set aside time to see the show were able to do so. The show was a success and Ms. Leffler got the largest cheers and applause at the curtain. I had intended to write a review of that performance, but when the Guthrie graciously offered to let me attend another performance, I decided that would be for the best. I realized while it gave me an interesting hook into the review, it wouldn’t be a review of the show that my readers would be seeing. So I attended the show again last night with the full cast in place and that is the performance I will be reviewing. I wanted to acknowledge though the wonderful job that Laura Leffler did stepping in for Adelin Phelps, it was brave and she did a great job.

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling was first performed in 1987 and was followed by a popular film which Harling adapted for the screen himself. It is set at Truvy’s Beauty Salon in a fictional parish in Louisiana called Chinquapin. It opens with Truvy, played by Austene Van, trying out Annelle’s hairstyling talents on herself and then offering her a job in her salon. Normally Saturdays Truvy reserves just for the ladies from the neighborhood which are Clairee, Ouiser and M’Lynn. Clairee played by Amy Van Nostrand, is recently widowed, her husband was the former mayor of the city. She is well off and at loose ends with how to spend her time and money now that her husband has passed. Ouiser played by local legend Sally Wingert, has the opposite temperament of Clairee who is always upbeat. Ouiser is always grumpy and sarcastic and seems to have a lifelong feud going with her neighbor M’Lynn’s husband Drum. M’Lynn is played by Melissa Maxwell, her daughter Shelby, played by Nicole King, is getting married that day so Truvy is going to do a special hairstyle for Shelby. We learn over the first scene about the characters and their relationships to each other. We learn that Shelby suffers from Type 1 Diabetes and we learn of Annelle’s husband who is in trouble with the law and has run off leaving her stranded without money or a job. The play jumps forward three times from there covering about 3 years in the lives of these six women. The main plot line follows Shelby from her wedding day to her pregnancy announcement and through her health complications. But each of the women have their own stories, which while not the central focus, do run throughout so they all become three dimensional characters.

Played by Adelin Phelps, Annelle is a down on her luck naive girl with a past who needs a helping hand and a support system, which is what she finds at Truvy’s. For the six women in this play the salon is their support system. We follow them as they come together to celebrate and to console each other. The Salon is like a prism through which we see all the different shades of these woman’s friendship. We see them tease one another, build each other up, advise and comfort each other. All of it done with humor and wit that is derived less from one liners and jokes but from character. Each of the actresses brings their characters fully to life. We learn bits and pieces about all of these woman as the play progresses. Each scene gives us new information to add to what we already know, nothing is an offhand remark, every scrap of dialogues informs our understanding of each character. It really is a remarkable script, there doesn’t seem to be a line in the play that doesn’t either further the plot or develop our understanding of the characters. You couldn’t have a play this good without a fabulous script which Steel Magnolias certainly has. The other critical element is the cast, and every single member of this cast is equal to the script. The oldest characters Clairee and Ouiser are the most comical and Van Nostrand and Wingert play the humor to the hilt, but they never allow it to overpower their characters. They have a peice of business in the last scene that has the audience in tears of laughter just as we were tearing up out of sadness.

The set is a full scale mock up of the hair salon which Truvy’s husband converted from a carport in the last romantic gesture she can remember from him. The set rotates 360 degrees as the scene changes, the backdrop of a large tree and its branches also changes to reflect the season. The turning of the set and change of the leaf colors on the background nicely convey they passage of time, the leaves charting the change in season and the set turning like the hands of a clock. In an odd choice, we see stage hands decorating the set as it rotates. This has the effect of taking the audience out of the play momentarily. I can’t help but think a better solution would have been to leave the set turned 180 degrees while the set changes took place and then completing the other 180 degrees of the turn to present us the stage with changes made. Otherwise the set is impressive and well designed. I enjoyed the costumes as well, they had an 80’s vibe, but not in a overpoweringly obvious way, more what people wore day to day in the 80’s than the way you’d dress going to an 80’s costume party. Finally a word should be said about the hair. I was rather impressed to see Van and Phelps actually doing the other four woman’s hair on stage. The wigs were excellent and the actresses looked like they had been styling their whole lives.

Steel magnolias is a funny and warm look at the relationships of six woman in a small town and the support system they have created for each other in Truvy’s Salon. Filled with great character motivated humor it also plumbs the depths of despair, the full spectrum of the human condition is on display. This is a show where it’s fair to say you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, I recommend everyone taking at least 4 or 5 kleenex in with you, there will be tears. The show runs through December 15th at the Guthrie Theater in the Mcguire Proscenium Stage. for more information and for tickets go to their website at https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2019-2020-season/steel-magnolias/

Zafira and the Resistance Sets Out to Open Our Eyes at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio

Filsan Said, Lina Janoul, Rsha Ahmad Sharif, Noor Adwan. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

The New Arab American Theater Works production of Kathryn Haddad’s Zafira and the Resistance is a play all Twin Cities parents should take their daughters and sons to. The drama opened this last weekend in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater. The Dowling Studio is essentially a performance space that seems to function as a bridge between community and art. A space where artists can express their truths and spark communication and connections. I attended the Sunday evening performance with my daughter, a senior in high school. The play was a great conversation stimulator about issue that are happening in the world around us and what they mean and where they can lead. But also about theater itself and the role of the artist in society. That is probably the greatest thing you can take away from this show. Young and old people alike can lack an understanding of what art can do. They may believe it is simply to provide entertainment, to make them laugh or cry or be thrilled, and yes it often does all of those things. But it can also be about ideas, it can be about justice and injustice. It can hold a mirror up to society and show us who we are and who we could become. It can show us the best of ourselves and the worst. It can also show us the “other” the person who is not like us, the person who eats different foods than we do, who speaks a different language, has a different skin tone, or religious belief. While doing this, it can either play on our fears or show us the folly in them. Make no mistake, art can be used to raise us up or drag us down. When used to tear us down, it’s goal is exclusion. When it raises us up, it speaks to inclusion. Perhaps the most important aspect of art is the questions it raises and the discussions it requires. Good art can entertain or be about ideas. Great art usually does both. Great art not only moves us but makes us think as well. Zafira and the Resistance contains the DNA of great art.

The Setting is a school much like the one’s in our city. The city, much like the one we live in. The country is our own. The time, next week, next year or perhaps never. The details do not matter, what does is that it could be anywhere at anytime. It could have been 5 years ago, but it is more likely to be today. Zafira Khoury (Lina Jamoul) is a literature teacher, she brings her lunch to school everyday, she is unmarried and has cats, she is also an Arab American. The story revolves around what happens to Zafira when the country forgets the second word in her and other Arab American’s cultural identity. The play tells it’s story following two separate threads. The first follows Zafira as she experiences the rise of Xenophobia and the loss of her voice and freedoms. It begins with a lunch room discussion between Zafira and two others, their ignorance of the food she has prepared and indifference to her culture are played at first for laughs, but become increasingly more telling. The disinterest in her culture reflects what many see as “American’s” belief that our way is the only way. They are already treating her as the “other” forgetting that she is an American. She went to school here, lives here, works here, votes here. This scene and others like it help the audience, in this case a white middle class male, understand what it is like to be the “other”. The second follows the students at the school where Zafira teaches and their lesson in the dangers of blind obedience. The Great Leader (Garry Geiken) of our country is recruiting school children to join his club where they will have an important role to play in keeping America safe. As the story progresses so do the stakes and the costs. If I told you were it ended I would rob the story of some of it’s power which comes in the logical way in which we go from grounded to that could never happen. But of course it could as we are reminded in the final scene before intermission. Listen to the words spoken, they are adapted from actual quotes from our past in America.

The staging is simple, desks, chairs and cots make up the majority of the stage settings, projection is used for messages from the Great Leader. It is simple, but all that is needed to tell the story. Action is staged primarily on the main floor but use is made of an upper level in a few scenes. When this play is inevitably staged in a larger theater with actual sets I could see the use of a two story set. The majority of the first act taking place on the upper story while half of the action of the second act taking place on the lower story. All of the actors are good, several of them are very new, they all show promise. There are definitely moments when the script could have been better supported by a more seasoned cast. There are scenes where there are four characters sharing a room, those never quite build the intimacy and relationships they should. But there are also moments where the cast could have been supported by a tighter script. The character of Karmel, who prefers to be called Kelsey, played by Noor Adwan in her professional stage debut, has a scene at the end where she has to be convinced of something, the reluctance and eventual change of heart seem unsupported and need to be reworked. There are aspect that are a little too on the nose, and yet, that is also part of what makes it work. This is a difficult balance to strike and for the most part Zafira and the Resistance gets it right.

But those are quibbles as the sets and the acting or not the star of this show, that is Kathryn Haddad. She has found a structure which can support the weight of some very heavy ideas. The duel threads give the audience multiple avenues in which to find their in. We have an adult character in real world situations that we can identify with and learn through. There are young characters that younger audience members can identify with initially, and hopefully gain some understanding of how we can be gradually led astray if we get carried along with the crowd. Zafira and the Resistance is a play about the dangers inherent in a world led by hate and fear and it has found the right way in which to tell it. It is not a perfect piece, but it could be. I would not be surprised in 5 years to see Zafira and the Resistance playing on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie. It may seem small now and in terms of production it is, but the ideas are large and it will open up wide avenues for discussion among attendees. I cannot recommend this enough.

Zafira and the Resistance runs through October 27th, tickets can be purchased through The Guthrie Theater https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2019-2020-season/zafira-and-the-resistance/