A show you won’t see in Donald Trump’s America

iranians-cover Elham Korda in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Copyright 2015, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

On Friday January 27, 2017, United States president Donald Trump issued an executive order barring from entering the United States for 90 days all citizens from seven countries with majority Muslim populations: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and the Sudan. On Friday night, refugees who had already been granted visas were detained at U.S. airports, among them, the New York Times reported, Hameed Khalid Darweesh,  who worked for the U.S. government for 10 years in Iraq. On Saturday, after thousands turned out at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest the detentions, a federal judge issued an emergency ruling annuling the detentions, but not the decree. If  Mr. Trump’s order stays in effect, among the artists you’ll never see in the United States are the extraordinary Iranian actresses I had the privilège of seeing and reviewing here in this article first published on November 4, 2015. PS: There are, of course, larger implications of Mr. Trump’s action: On the cusp of World War II, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe was turned away from New York Harbor, the  Jews sent back to face certain death. Never again.

PARIS — As I watched Afseneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s reality-based play, “Every day a little bit more,”  unfold Monday night at the Theatre de la Ville’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre, I could not stop thinking: Why aren’t we seeing this (Iranian production) in the United States? Why is the U.S. instead actually fining the French bank BNP Paribas $8.9 billion for breaking the arbitrary American embargos against Iran and the Sudan, while the French are bringing Iranian artists to Paris to talk about other things besides Islam, terrorism, nuclear weapons, Syria, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Salafism, Wahabiism, Wassabiism, fatwahs, anti-Semitism, ayatollahs, oil, censorship, bans, and other subjects which do exist but which are not the sole facet of the Iranian-Persian (or even Muslim) identity, just as gun violence and white against black racial killings are not the only element of the American identity? Even if  what’s derisively referred to here as “multi-culturalism” may get a bad rap from some sectors of French punditry, fueled by misplaced fear that it dimishes instead of enchancing the national identity, when it comes to cultural vectors —  in this case, director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Theatre de la Ville team — there’s no contest: the French are infinitely more open to the world. And the pay-off is infinite. Thanks to Demarcy-Mota and these incredibly earnest and sincere artists, now whenever I hear “Iranian nuclear threat” or skepticism about Iran’s motivations in Syria, behind the word “Iranian” I can see not just ayatollic machinations and troglodyte conservativism but a people with the exact same concerns as the rest of us.

Even as I was slipping into my usual critical aloofness Monday and ‘judging’ “Every day a little bit more” on dramatic criteria, I kept pinching myself in disbelief that I was actually watching three Iranian women and their Iranian theater company permitted into the country like any other troupe to depict universal human dramas, something I could never be watching if I were in the United States. (Author’s note, 1/29/2017: When this article was original published in 2015, an American reader disputed this contention. Under Mr. Trump’s new order though, in 2017 there’s no doubt.) You may think I’m exaggerating, but when afterwards I asked Elham Korda (in English; for a people supposedly weaned on hate for “the Great Satan,” they have an amazing proclivity for speaking its mother tongue; among the Iranian contingent at the after-party Monday, English was more pre-dominant than Farsi or French) — who plays the widow of real-life martyr Major General Abbas Doran, who crashed his plane, fatally hit by Iraqi fire, into the Baghdad hotel where Saddam Hussein was planning a meeting of the non-aligned movement to send the message that Iraq was winning its war with Iran — if the play, also touring to Vienna and Brussels, would be going to the United States, she just smiled ironically.

iranians-twoElham Korda and Setareh Eskandari in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

In this context it almost feels banal re-hashing the stories of the three women, involving, besides Korda’s older war widow, Baran Kosari’s mountain-climber and Setareh Eskandari’s mistress of a soccer star / wife murderer. What matters more — and I’m embarassed that my French colleagues won’t feel as obsessed with this point and will feel more free to examine the play itself without being distracted by the political externals — is that, like film-maker Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 “Taste of the Cherry,” Mahian and Sadri, through the vessels of their credible interpreters and enabled by the Theatre de la Ville reveal Iranians as normal human beings with concerns we can all relate to. (Spoiler alert.)

Tragic ending aside, for example, Kosari’s measuring up to the male rappelers on her team reminded me of the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia decides to join the Boy Scouts for a foraging expedition and holds her own with the guys, only Marcia got more winded that Kosari’s character, based on the real-life story of the first Iranian woman to scale various mountain-tops. Korda’s character (the reason I keep referring to the actresses’ characters is that none of them were given names, just as they never got to consume the scrumptious dinner — you could smell the spicy aromas mounting as the meat sizzled — they prepared live in a real kitchen set up on stage), meanwhile, could have been an American war widow holding out hope that her husband’s body not being recovered meant he could miraculously show up any day. There are particular exceptions, confirming that Iranian women still have a long way to go: Her husband’s pension goes not to her but his father, she getting a quarter of the amount — with the precision that it’s to be devoted to the costs of raising their son, the male life still priming. And while it’s not entirely clear whether she or the soccer hero has killed his wife, Eskandari as his mistress agrees to his request that she take the fall after his ultimately false assurance that he’ll get her spared from the death penalty. But the very noting of these sexist conditions belies the notion that the Iranian government will censure anything critical of its society and policies; “Every day a little bit more” was not only presented at this year’s Tehran International Theater Festival, it won the awards for best original text and best actresses.

If I have a criticism, it’s not of the acting itself, which was appropriately direct and accordingly unembellished and dramatic when called for, but of the oddity that while the three heroines’ stories were interlaced, there wasn’t a lot of actual interaction between them; rather they related their tales directly to the audience. But the correspondence between the three journeys was clear: In one fashion or another, while each was paired with an evident male hero — the soccer player, the male mountaineering champion, the fighter pilot — in each case it could be argued that the woman’s exploits were more enduringly heroic. The mistress paid the price for her lover’s infidelity to and possible murder of his wife (the conviction and horrifyingly graphic precision of her confession makes it hard to tell if she’s making it up to cover him or really committed the act; the text could be more clear here); the mountaineer was the one ostracized (including by her own mother) after her male partner’s fatal decision to allow the participation of a mountaineer not in a state to be climbing in their expedition; and unlike him, even the martyr’s widow didn’t choose her path but had it imposed on her, and given that society treated her almost like a sub-survivor whose suffering wasn’t as important as her father in law’s or son’s, her crucible was more unjust and more enduring. It might even be argued that, in the sense that it required bucking state authority, her refusal to have her husband’s empty uniform buried in his grave for want of a real corpse demanded just as much courage. These are martyrs in their own right whose stories are as meritorious as those of the men to whose orbits they were inevitably tethered.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Directed by Lowell Sherman
Shown: Mae West (center)From the series Modern Matinees: Hollywood and the Great Depression, 1933, playing at the Museum of Modern Art February 1 – March 31: Mae West and friends in “She Done Him Wrong.” 1933. USA. Directed by Lowell Sherman. Image courtesy MoMA.

New Mysteries of Lutece: Just another afternoon in Paradise

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — Up until two weeks ago, I spent my evenings regarding a Marseille-based soap opera, “Plus belle la vie,” romantic comedies, and ‘policiers’ or crime shows. When you’re living in an isolated 300-year-old stone house in the land of pre-history in the southwest of France, there isn’t much else to do at night but plant yourself in front of the television. (Living alone, I found it hard to read at night; television at least provided the illusion of company.) But since I have returned to Paris, I have found myself embroiled in my own French soap opera, romantic comedy, and even a police drama, with me cast in the role of the kindly neighbor who the police ask to stay with ‘the little lady’ in case the schizophren who knocked down her door returns. (This was the same young man who previously had lavished my neighbor-friend Sophie and I with fromage, charcuterie, and even multi-colored marshmellows, as well as taken us dancing to a reggae bar on the rue Bagnolet in the netherworlds of the 20eme arrondissement. In the big city, heroes and villains often inter-mingle, sometimes in the same person.) It all ended — until the next chapter, anyway, still unfolding — with Sophie hailing me as the man from providence after I wrested a handful of sleeping pills from her fist on their way to her mouth and before she took off on another two-bottle rouge trip and insisted we watch “Sophie’s Choice” for the umpteenth time.

To get the rest of the article, first published on June 16, 2010 and substantially revised today, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. (Just paste that address into your browser.) Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager for just $49.95/year ($25 for students and unemployed artists) and receive full access to all Arts Voyager stories and art, including stories archived since 2011. To subscribe via PayPal, just designate your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, Euros, or British pounds. Subscribe by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, gift subscription for free.

Pourquoi je voterai Benoît Hamon

Par Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

“Il faut se saisir de la réalité tant qu’il est vécu par nos compatriotes.”

— Benoît Hamon, France Inter, le 23 janvier 2017

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (Volez comme un papillon, piquez comme un abeille)

— Muhammad Ali, citation collée au dessus du bureau de Benoit Hamon

De l’extrême gauche a l’extrême droite — avec quelques exceptions sur quelques points de la part de Yannick Jadot & Emmanuel Macron — tous les candidats à l’élection presidentielle française dit qu’ils sont seuls à détenir la verité. Or, leur verités sont presque toutes basées sur un idéologie plutôt que sur une analyse froide des faits. Sauf Benoît Hamon.

Voici un exemple: Dans notre société, il y en a qui disent que la soi-disant “révolution” numérique est formidable, et il y en a d’autres (comme votre serviteur) qui disent que c’est un malédiction malsaine car elle remplace les humains par des robots (ou, si tu prefère, le travail individuel par l’automatique et les ‘algorithmes,’ donc l’humain devient plus et plus obsolète en faveur de la robotique). Benoît Hamon, par contre, dit (pour resumer): “Ecoutez, qu’on l’aime ou qu’on se mefie, le numérique est là. La mondialisation — et le perte d’emploi qu’elle implique, comme pour le numerique — est là. Alors comment faire face?”

Comme *une* solution possible, Hamon a proposé le “revenu universel.” *MAIS,* à la différence des autres politiciens — surtout ceux qui lui sont presque tous tombés dessus — il a précisé (je résume encore), “C’est ma verité, mais ce n’est pas moi qui ai le monopole de la vérité. On peut discuter.”

Donc, pour moi, la question n’est pas, “Est-ce que le revenu universel vas nous sauver” ni non plus, “Mais comment on va payer pour ça?” L’important c’est plutôt dans le fait que Benoît Hamon a posé la question: “Le numérique et le mondialisation sont là. Il y a des gens qui souffrent au cause de ça. Est-ce qu’il y a un moyen d’améliorer leur souffrance? Voila une idée. Est-ce que vous en avez une autre?”

picabiaadamandeve-smallHaving caught his all-inclusive 2002 show at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris and reflected that, as with many artists (more recently, Wilfredo Lam and Le Courbusier, both revealed in over-abundance at the Pompidou Center), the oeuvre of Francis Picabia isn’t necessarily well-served by being shown in its entirety (the later works often resemble garish studies based on magazine photographs… as many were), I wasn’t particularly excited about Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, the monographic Picabia show running through March 19 at the Museum of Modern Art. That was before I saw the above, created in that seminal year of 1911, just one of the 200 works including 125 paintings featured — and definitely not included in the Paris exhibition. Francis Picabia (1879-1953), “Adam et Ève” (Adam and Eve). 1911. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 × 31 7/8″ (100 × 81 cm). Private collection. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. — Paul Ben-Itzak

New York Gallery Hop-o-thermia: Fear & loathing in Chelsea

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK — Only a true art fanatic with a death wish would walk 50 blocks downtown from his digs on the Upper West Side to the Chelsea Art Valley on a polar night in Manhattan, when the towering buildings on the seemingly interminable blocks between 10th and 11th Avenue make the art voyager feel particularly naked in the Naked City. So there I was — oui, moi — with a scribbled list of a dozen galleries hosting openings Thursday night, in search of high middle-brow art ‘arrosed’ by red, red, wine. What I found was middle-concept middling art watered down by tepid white wine (doesn’t stain like red), with only one artist worth remarking among the 12, this defeated art voyager treading wearily home in his Fort Worth Mexican flea market tan cowboy boots, only to be saved by Joel McCrea riding out of the high country with Randolph Scott riding herd.

To get the rest of the article, first published on February 12, 2011, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager for just $49.95/year ($25 for students and unemployed artists) and receive full access to all Arts Voyager stories and art, including stories archived since 2011. To subscribe via PayPal, just designate your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, Euros, or British pounds. Subscribe by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, gift subscription for free.

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