I had previously read, and enjoyed, the script for Inana before I saw the disappointing production at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. As a play, Inana is a bit of a throwback to a time when theaters were prosperous — big cast, complicated problems, exotic locales. The CATF does not stint on any of the production values, but Ed Herendeen’s cast doesn’t have the charisma or vigor necessary to bring this big play to life.
Inana’s immediate subject is the preservation of Iraq’s innumerable antiquities in the face of the imminent American invasion, but of course the play invokes much more than that: the preservation of Iraqis themselves against their own predatory leaders and against the depredations of war. Playwright Michele Lowe is blessedly straightforward about it. Iraq is a place where children are punished for taking trinkets by having their fingers chopped off, or worse. Living in the context of a land hell-smoked even before the invasion, it is the special mission of Yasin Shalid (Barzin Akhavan) to protect the ancient statute of the Assyrian goddess Inana – the only surviving one of its kind. Inana has a special significance for her wounded people: like some of them, she has only one arm.
So we begin in a room in a well-furnished London hotel, where Yasin is on honeymoon with his second wife, Shali (Zabryna Guevara). His match with Shali is obviously an arranged one. His dialogue – shouted from the main room while Shali hides in the bathroom – sounds like words from a first date with a second wife. Yasin, it turns out, is mixing business with pleasure. He has an appointment with the Director of Antiquities at the British Museum on the second day of their honeymoon. There is a special purpose to it.
Shali, who professes to be disgusted at the general level of filth around her, can’t wait to get back to Mosul. But – and you have probably already guessed this – Yasin is not going back to Mosul. He and Shali have come to England for good.
It is the first of many surprises. Everything Yasin does springs from his singular mission to save the statue of Inana. Thus, as Yasin explains to Shalie the steps which have led them to London, Lowe conjures up the scenes on the Frank Center’s capacious stage. Yasin steps down from the hotel room to visit the bookseller Abdel-Hakim Taliq (James Rana), fresh from having his fingernails pulled out for displaying an offensive book (it had animals on the cover). Later, he steps down to meet with the shrewd art forger Emad Al-Bayit (Gregor Paslawsky), and thereafter seals with him a deal of a kind and nature not normally reported to the museum regulatory authorities. He has a brief and poignant moment with his first wife Hama (Reema Zaman, who lights up the stage). And in similar fashion he spins his whole narrative out, to Shali and to us, until the preposterous gamble he has taken makes itself clear and we, like the audience in a magic act, are amazed.
This is an extraordinarily complicated series of events, put together by a remarkable man, and in order to fully engage the audience it must have a compelling Yasin at its center. Regrettably, Akhavan is not there yet. Yasin, as played by Akhavan, is a credible academic, and seems like a sweet guy, but he projects a sort of nebbish persona which makes it hard to believe that he could mastermind the daring scheme at the heart of Inana. Even more significantly, this mild-style Yasin cannot draw the audience in to what is, in essence, a thriller.
Guevara, as the arranged wife, has a role which, aside from raising a few initial objections when she learns how radically her life has been changed, is pretty passive. She does as well as can be expected, revealing Shali’s true maturity and wisdom gradually, at a pace the character can expect Yasin to absorb. The remainder of the cast, which includes Jonathan Raviv as Yasin’s assistant in Iraq and Michael Goodfriend in dual roles as a boisterous waiter and an executive with the British Museum, does good work and Zaman and Paslawsky are excellent.
The bottom line, though, is that this piece – admittedly a dialogue-heavy play principally about academics – can only work if it makes your heart race. Regrettably, this production doesn’t.
By Michele Lowe
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: two hours, including one intermission