“This is a sprawling play about many things at once…Mostly, it’s about our uniquely human proclivity for oblivion. And it’s staged by a company at the top of its game in all technical categories.”
-John Moore, Denver Post
“Homebody”: Right play, right time, right company
Hours after missiles began raining on Libya, the opening performance of Curious Theatre’s milestone staging of “Homebody/Kabul” made plain that the shocking news of the day was merely the continuation of a numbing, 5,000-year cycle of violence in which all that ever changes is the location of the resulting rubble.
Tony Kushner’s opus, written just before the 9/11 attacks and running nearly four hours in length, is an exhausting and bewildering night of difficult theater that rewards your perseverance in uncommon and lasting ways. For its global understanding of an Afghan landscape that remains stubbornly unfamiliar to Western eyes, this is the right play at the right time by the right company.
Alienating and alluring all at once, this ambitious theatrical adventure takes rabbit-hole plunges from extended monologue to Hitchcockian mystery to brutal culture clash to heroin-induced nursery rhyme. Throughout, five millennia of little-known history are imparted about this desolate place said to bear the poisoned grave of Cain, founder of the city where empires go to die.
We open in a London parlor where a charming, ebullient and, it turns out, doped-up British housewife reads to us with childlike enthusiasm from a tellingly outdated 1965 Kabul guidebook.
This “Homebody” scatters elliptical historical seeds dating to Alexander and Genghis Kahn, while tossing in clues to her own unsatisfied existence. In this gamely performed 50-minute introduction by Dee Covington, we learn this woman is improbably considering her own escape into the strange beauty of a city that, like her own life, has already long ceased to be.
We next follow her husband, Milton (Erik Sandvold), and grown daughter, Priscilla (Jessica Robblee), to Afghanistan, and claims that the unwelcome Homebody has been torn to pieces and scattered throughout the city, never to be found.
And what a wretched, failed family they make. Hardened Priscilla hires a local guide (Jonathan Raviv) to search for the truth, encountering gender-based hostility at every turn, while the affrighted Milton loses himself in booze and drugs with a British attaché (Michael Morgan).
This all sounds like an absurd, acidic joke, when you think of it, cuttingly told by a playwright with an intimidating command of language like no one since Shakespeare: So this woman of privilege has fled in mind and now body to a once-thriving cultural oasis that’s been transformed into the least welcoming place on Earth for women. A land of curfews, bombs and 300,000 widows and orphans. A breeding ground of barbaric, radical fanaticism. Where theater, photography and art are illegal.
Augustus Truhn and Jessica Robblee of Curious Theatre’s culture-clash, “Homebody/Kabul,” in which an Afghan local laments his long-gone access to the music of Frank Sinatra. (Michael Ensminger)
If our addled narrator believes her salvation somehow lies here, what then must Kushner be saying about the Western domesticity from which she’s fled?
If only she had a more current guidebook.
The accomplishment of director Chip Walton’s production can be measured in far greater ways than time passed. Starting with uniformly brave and visceral performances, anchored by Robblee’s ferocious portrayal of a daughter who’s the unmistakable progeny of her deeply damaged parents.
It’s an evening laced with theatrical land mines both angry and heartbreaking: Karen Slack as an outspoken librarian who delivers a bitter eulogy to her homeland in seven languages, ranging from Dari to Pashtun to French. Area newcomer Mueen Jahan as our nightmarish embodiment of “The Other” — a brutal Taliban cleric spewing anti-Western vitriol. Augustus Truhn as an Afghan who dissolves at the sound of Frank Sinatra’s voice — a telling statement on the pop-culture contradiction in a city moving backward in time. Morgan and Sandvold eerily imparting small bits of mumbled geopolitical truths as they drift into their heroin highs.
This is a sprawling play about many things at once. It’s about the West’s historic and contemporary relationship with Afghanistan. It’s about physical and spiritual displacement. It’s about how languages define us, separate us and, in rare cases, unite us. It’s about the ongoing implosion of family since Cain and Abel.
Mostly, it’s about our uniquely human proclivity for oblivion. And it’s staged by a company at the top of its game in all technical categories.
This is theater as Aristotle aspired — of high intent and intelligent execution.