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War and Peace 

A festival of short plays takes a raw, intelligent look at life beyond the politics in the Middle East

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
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Since 9/11, public opinion on the Middle East has been pushed and pulled in every imaginable direction. East Bay theater company Golden Thread Productions is intent on debunking some of the stereotypes that the popular media create. In ReOrient 2002, its annual festival of short plays showcasing Middle Eastern themes and playwrights, the troupe immerses itself in the timely subjects of war and conflict. Founder and Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian says it's impossible to talk about the region and not discuss these issues. Yet at the same time, she explains, Golden Thread is first and foremost interested in creating intelligent, artistic theater -- not in conveying a particular political agenda.

The company recognizes the fine line it walks. Its productions often stir strong emotions, which was most evident last year when the group performed just days after the attacks. In an effort to create a safe place for people to talk about the issues raised in the plays, Golden Thread instituted Q&A sessions after each performance, a welcome chance for many to take part in a dialogue about the Middle East. "What I've found is that people are very supportive of us," says Yeghiazarian.

The festival is divided into two series. Series 1, which plays Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., consists of three pieces that focus on Middle Eastern women's experiences. A Syrian immigrant to the U.S. shares her life as a chaste spinster in Sewing in Syria, and Waves, set in Los Angeles, concerns two Iranian women who reunite for a volatile rehashing of their revolutionary past. Such a Beautiful Voice Is Sayeda's is the surrealistic tale of an Egyptian woman who, in trying to uncover some beauty in herself, becomes confronted with several alter egos and discovers she has a lovely singing voice.

Series 2 (Fridays and Sundays at 8 p.m.) includes five plays rooted in conflict. Though the subject matter is traumatic, the company works to bring richness and complexity to the issues, so that audience members aren't left feeling suicidal. In Betty Shamieh's Tamam, a monologue by a young Palestinian rape victim, director Yeghiazarian uses two actresses who ominously echo one another's tragic tale in spoken word but who also share scenes of celebratory dance and love.

Surprisingly, many of the pieces are by playwrights Yeghiazarian describes as "average American women" writing from the perspective of Middle Eastern men. Laura McPherson was inspired to write A Friendly Face, a monologue given by a dead Iraqi soldier (in Series 2), after she saw a photograph of an incinerated Iraqi fighter. Aware of how little she knew about the war, McPherson says, "In a sense, the photograph supplied the positive, which I then used to try to create a negative: the play." Though death plays a major role in the piece, the topic really covers how rich life in Iraq was before the Gulf War -- a time when Saddam wrote romances.

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Fiona Gow

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