Ancient Persian Epic Transforms Into Elaborate Shadow Puppet Play

Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic's three-day run begins Friday.

Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic (Photo courtesy of Kingorama)

Imagine a tale combining The Jungle Book, Rapunzel, and Romeo and Juliet that fans of high fantasy series like Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings can easily get into.

That’s just the precursor to Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings — Iran’s 10th-century Iliad-esque epic poem full of mythology, tragedy, love stories, and battles — that graphic artist and filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian has spent a decade adapting into visual media. San Franciscans can see his latest medium, a shadow puppet play Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic during its three-day run starting Friday, Nov. 3 at Cowell Theater.

“Visually, it’s not something being explored in the Western world,” Rahmanian tells SF Weekly. “Shahnameh is like the national identity of Iran.”

Of the many Shahnameh stories, Rahmanian chose the story of star-crossed lovers — albino outcast Zaul, who was raised by mythical bird Simorgh, and princess Rudabeh, who gives birth to national figure Rostam. Francis Ford Coppola liked it so much he saw it three times, calling it “cinematic wizardry” and, later, introduced the 12-hour audiobook.

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When Rahmanian did a small Shahnameh puppet show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Academy of Music wanted more. Now, he has an elaborate shadow puppet play consisting of eight actors, 160 puppets, 15 masks, 137 animated backgrounds, and 1,168 production cues on a 16 by 35-foot screen.

Shadow puppet plays are often in black and white, but Feathers of Fire is in color and with a unique style. Rahmanian learned plenty from his mentor Larry Reed, San Francisco’s internationally acclaimed “shadow master,” and added his own touch by switching techniques like using a projector instead of halogen lighting.

“I know we Iranians like to exaggerate,” Rahmanian says, but there’s “nothing else like it.”

While Rahmanian’s Shahnameh works have been made for people of all walks of life, youth and non-Iranians are at the forefront. Negative, politically-charged stories dominate headlines about Iran and cultural touchstones of Iran are often disseminated for academic purposes, Rahmanian says.

“I tried to go against the current and show the [cultural] sophistication,” he says, adding that when youth “see something so beautiful from Iran, it stays in their mind forever.”

Rahmanian, who came from Iran in 1994 to study at the Pratt Institute and later worked for Disney, calls his wife and work partner, Melissa Hibbard, the backbone of this project. The two live in Brooklyn, but have been touring for two years and have more shows planned for 2018.

He found he had to tell audience members that what they were about to watch was, indeed, live and not an animated feature. For all of the technical achievements and awe-inspiring source material, Rahmanian says words are useless in trying to capture the play. (Guess I’ll pack my bags, then.)

“This is such a visual form that whatever I say doesn’t do it justice,” Rahmanian says. “I doubt some crazy person will make this again.”

Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic, Friday, Nov. 3 – Sunday, Nov. 5, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., at Cowell Theater in the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. $15-70, kingorama.com

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