Music Drama from Iran

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A multi part traditional music drama from Iran has come to the Lincoln Center Festival.It celebrates the origins of the Shiite branch of the Muslim faith.It is the first time that the performance of Ta ziyeh has been seen in America.Judith Kampfner reports.

J: The audience at Damrosch Park see a timeless epic in which the good try to outwit the enemy but suffer tragic consequences.

Interrogation, fights, escapes, betrayals and slaughter.It s all been stripped down to the key elements in a theatrical form which has been observed for centuries in courtyards and tents across Iran. Mohammad Ghaffari an Iranian American theater director has been charged with the task of presenting Ta ziyeh to Western audiences .Ghaffari saw his first performance at the age of s part of everyday life . The performers are all amateurs and the props and sets made by local communities.. For the US premiere, he cherry picked from all over Iran and blended different theatrical styles from across the country.

Ta ziyeh is really one of the strongest forms of traditional theaters - compare it with Noh and Kabuki and Peking opera. It has almost the same effect and I m sure that if Shakespeare knew these stories, he would make plays out of them.

J: Taken together the plays of Ta ziyeh tell of the battle of Kerbala - one of the great stories of the world says Prof Hamid Dabashi at Columbia..A historical saga which is usually played with a large cast. When the state department denied entry visas of 10 of the 28 performers selected to come to New York, the version here had to be scaled down further. Dabashi says the political climate after 9.11 should facilitate cultural exchange with the Middle East, not hamper it.

Hamid: All these T aziyeh performers are here with the heroic effort of people responsible for it at the Lincoln Center and everything that the US gov has been able to do prevent in fact one ta ziyeh cycle was cancelled because the participants were denied visas. We keep calling people axis of evil and all kinds of horror but any alternative in order to come and see peoples humanity we are barred by government. .

J:The director had to come up with a substitute section of the story could work with the available cast. Each play is presented in a spare style with symbolic elements and mimed gestures Good people in green, bad in red. The good sing, the bad recite. If a character runs in circles then he s travelling a long way..There is comic relief when a man who eats too fast gets his food smeared over his face . The director ,Mohammad Ghaffari watches at the ringside. He s noticed that American audiences sit very still.

In Iran it s completely different, people know the story, the plays are longer people participate, actually when they hear a song or a dirge, they beat their chests, but they keep the rhythm of that song..

J: Ta zieyeh is a both a secular festive occasion with actors singing on horseback in plumed hats, and it is deeply religious. The three plays performed by the troupe at the Lincoln Center Festival, depict events around the martyrdom of Hussein ,the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Peter Chelkowski at NYU says these plays exist primarily as religious ritual.

The term Ta ziyeh comes from Arabic from the word aa zey - which means to console ,to condole ,to mourn and it is a verbal noun which means a passion play.

J: The Christian passion play is perhaps a useful comparison says Hamid Dabashi , a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia. And he suggests, US audiences might find an easier way into this Islamic epic if they make a musical connection to western traditions.

Ta ziyeh is extremely similar to Bach s cantatas and Bach s drama and beautiful singing are all instruments in Ta zieyh and anybody in your audience who knows the passion of Christ through Bach s cantatas and goes to see T aziyeh sees immediate correspondence.

J: For example - the boy soprano role here in Bach

J: evokes the plaintive singing of these little heroes who are murdered in a Ta ziyeh story.
And there are other echoes.

J: But where Bach is set in time, this art form harnesses different elements from a changing historical and cultural context. For instance over the years it came to include British colonial marching music. Now in Iran they usually use a sound system. Professor Chelkowski is pleased that are no microphones in the Damrosch tent. He recalls an incident from a moment which detracted from a tragic finale in Iran.

Professor Chelkowski: You have the grandson of the prophet Hussein on the horse and the wire of the microphone got tangled into the private parts of the horse.and the horse couldn t take it and it fell to the ground and this is too much and they ve sang it for 250 years without mics and its perfectly alright without.

J: The conventions in Ta ziyeh are not clear cut for westerners. There s a gray line between solemnity and slapstick. And the animals in the performance - camels horses and sheep are not there just for entertainment - they remind believers of how all life is sacred - like the animals in the nativity manger.

one of the scenes that is my favorite is the anti war statement in the Ta ziyeh of Iman Hussein Hussien is dead and Ali Akhbar is dead..and the lion comes and the scene is so powerful that I don t think that anybody cannot cry

J: An actor in a lion suit removes the weapons which are scattered over the stage and lays out the bodies of dead heroes. At the end of the performance there is a procession around the circus ring and the actors who have played women in this all male troupe, lift their veils You stare into a face with a thick beard and a lone sheep breaks into a run in the opposite direction to the procession.The spell of the play is not broken s part of a theatrical spectacle which is both real and unreal , an ancient and a living tradition