Mohammad Reza Aliakbari in Tehran at “Our Town”

Iranshahr Theatre is one of the oldest and most popular theatres in Tehran. From its two well-equipped stages and good location to its dedicated audiences, no other theatre in the city attracts more devoted theatre-makers or attendees. And as I stand in front of it now, I am faced with two choices on either side of me.

On my right is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, terrifyingly titled There Will Be Blood. It has been one year since the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Tensions between the two countries are at their highest. Every day brings fresh threats from both fronts. And with an ever-worsening economic crisis, the Iranian people are now afraid of war. The play’s title alone is enough for me to look the other way.

To my left is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Presented by Leev Theatre Group and directed by its founder Mohammad Hasan Majooni, Our Town might be an American play from the late 1930s, but it is now a universal classic. It is the sort of piece that makes everyone seeing it think it represents their own town.

 

Haleh Pourghadimi and Afshin Vazirzadeh in Our Town. Photo credit: Mehdi Ashna.

 

Leev Theatre Group is likely one of the only theatre companies in Iran that is intent on functioning as one. They have an established approach to their productions and to how they conduct research. They are deliberate in providing a certain experience and have even attempted to expand their activities to other Iranian cities by conducting workshops. They also run a theatre academy, with a dozen graduates now working on Our Town as actors and director’s assistants.

For Leev Theatre Group, the emphasis is on acting. This comes as no surprise, seeing as how Majooni himself began his career in theatre as an actor. The company focuses on diminishing all other theatrical elements; their productions have the barest amount of set design and props. Majooni’s approach is therefore best described as minimalist, and here in Our Town that is as apparent as ever.

Sitting in rows facing one another, the audience is treated to the tour-de-force that is Hossein Omidi in the role of the stage manager. He is the only professional actor cast in the production. Having already worked in several previous Majooni projects, here again Omidi displays his particularly comic abilities in a role that would excite any actor. Throughout the show, he also succeeds in keeping rhythm with, and maintaining, the dynamism of the rest of the cast, as a conductor would with an orchestra.

 

Mehdi Abuhamzeh and Sama Rajabi in Our Town. Photo credit: Mehdi Ashna.

 

One could sense how the younger actors were spurred on to do their best. They compensate for a lack of experience with a great deal of effort and energy. Not many beginners are seen on professional stages like that of the Iranshahr Theatre, and I think it is good to allow new generations of actors onto them. Such a thing can really prove that celebrity-appeal isn’t the only thing that can sell tickets.

Majooni is faithful to the original text and captures WiIder’s intent perfectly. It is truly a worthy production. How so? Because in Iranian theatre, foreign plays are often deconstructed beyond recognition, repurposed to the point where one hardly knows how to label the final piece. Is it an adaptation, or indeed, a loose adaptation? Is it merely inspired by the original text? is it experimental dramaturgy? A compilation? Suffice it to say, this would be a different story altogether if Iran adhered to international copyright conventions.

But here, in Our Town, the original text remains fully intact. The few changes that are made are to the jokes and other cultural differences that are necessary to translate from one point of reference to another. As a director, Majooni doesn’t want to amaze or confuse his audience with cheap tricks or indiscernible symbolism.

What Majooni does instead is to transmit the essence of the play text itself. At this point in his career, it is obvious that he only chooses texts that he personally likes and wishes to bring to the stage. Majooni typically goes for well-known, universal plays, and with his emphasis on actors’ abilities, he puts together an original and honest production. Indeed, one could say that that is the mark of a Majooni-directed play. Even if it seems like an uninspired choice of text, the production will be original and honest.

This comes from his personality of course. As an actor, his approach is simple, unpolished, and natural. Through this attitude, he manages to portray complicated characters. His performance as the title character in Amir Reza Koohestani’s (probably the most internationally-renowned figure in Iranian theatre) production of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov is really unforgettable.

In this production, thanks to Majooni’s approach, Thornton Wilder’s world is the one to which we are taken. Our Town, with its three-act structure, adheres to a mythical and archetypal pattern as set out by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). We see life broken down into three stages: youth, maturity, and death. Sticking to Frye’s terminology, we are presented with an “Analogy of Innocence” which depends on imagery familiar to audiences all over the world, despite their language, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. This is what gives the production an eternal and universal quality. Every person in the audience will be able to see themselves in this projected world, as I did myself. The play succeeds in coming across with how short life can be and how desperately one can miss one’s departed loved ones. During the play’s final scene, l saw myself standing on the graves of my parents — on my own grave, even. And l wept.

Going back into the lobby of the theatre, I am confronted once more by the poster for There Will Be Blood. And again, I am reminded of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. The Our Town might have been an “Analogy of Innocence” but the real world is more likely to be an “Analogy of Experience”. Is this pessimism? Maybe! But there are clear signs that we are living in a time of destruction.

 

(Ed. Incredibly, we reported on this production of Our Town in Tehran and another in Regent’s Park, London, in the same editionR)