Friday, April 14, 2017

Huntington Theatre Company Presents "The Who & The What" by Ayad Akhtar - Wrestling With The Role Of Women Within Islam

I have been fascinated by the work of Ayad Akhtar since I saw the Pulitzer Prize winning play "Disgraced" in New York and then at the Huntington. The current Huntington Theatre Company production of "The Who & The What" builds on some of the themes that the playwright introduced in "Disgraced." I became familiar with the current play by reading it before I had a chance to see it performed. Here is my brief review after reading the play.

White Rhino Report Review of "The Who & The What

With this play, Mr. Akthar, continues to dig deeply into his own heritage as a Pakistani-American born into a Muslim family.  As he has done with his play "Disgraced," and his novel, "American Dervish," he has created characters who wrestle with issues of identity.  This grappling mirrors the wrestling that Mr. Akhtar himself has engaged in regarding complex questions of how to maintain his embrace of his cultural heritage while questioning many of the theological and social tenets of his family's Muslim faith. In this drama, Zarina is writing a novel which examines the Prophet Mohamed's marriages, and the origin of women wearing the hijab - the veil.  Her traditional father and sister are shocked by her lack of devotion to the accepted hagiographic image of the Prophet, and her husband's career as an Imam is threatened. There is plenty of conflict to be fleshed out among the play's four characters as Zarina's questioning voice places a strain on her devotion to her faith and to her family.

Director M. Bevin O'Gara has melded the four actors into an ensemble that vibrates with passion and tension. The brilliant and stunning Scenic Design by Cristina Tedesco presents a gold box inside a larger gold proscenium frame. The box is flecked with splotches of red, and contains geometric patterns one might find in a mosque. Sliding panels allow the scene to change from kitchen to living room to coffee shop. The elegant box also sends the tacit message that reinforces themes from the action of the play: "No matter how beautiful the box, no one enjoys being boxed in and trapped inside someone else's definition of who you should be." Costumes are by Mary Lauve, Lighting by Annie Wiegand, Sound by M.L. Dogg, with Original Music by Saraswathi Jones.

Aila Peck plays the elder daughter in a Pakistani-American family in Atlanta. Zarina has been reluctant to marry, or even to date, while she works on her book on the role of women in Islam. Her younger sister, Mahwish (Turna Mete) is desperate for Zarina to marry so she can wed her long-time boyfriend. Father and daughter conspire to set Zarina up with an on-line date, and she eventually marries Eli (Joseph Marrella), an American from Detroit who has converted to Islam and has become an Imam. The father, Afzal (Rom Barkhordar) is a widower who has worked hard building a successful taxi company to support his two daughters. Ms. Peck is quietly militant in wanting to carve out her own path, examining the life of the prophet in ways that may debunk popular myths. There is a price to pay that is reminiscent of the strained relationship in "Fiddle on the Roof" between Tevye and Chava.

Aila Peck as Zarina
Turna Mete as Mahwish
Rom Barkhordar as Afzal
 Huntington Theatre Company's production of The Who & the What

Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara
Through May 7, 2017

South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
The play as written is deeply thought-provoking, and as acted in this production, is profoundly moving. It will run at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 7th.



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