Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: (Calgary) The Kite Runner

(photo credit: Trudie Lee)
War, Betrayal and Kites
Novel to screen to stage
by Joe Vermeulen

Originally a novel, then a film, The Kite Runner has been once again adapted to a new medium, the stage.  With powerful performances and striking design, the Theatre Calgary production also happens to be the Canadian première of the stage adaptation.

The Kite Runner is about an Afghani boy, Amir, growing up and learning how to stand up for himself and for others. In this process he betrays his friend Hassan and the guilt drives him for the rest of the play. Also discussed are what it means to own your national identity, what it means to be a traitor and what it means to be a man.

Ultimately however, I was unclear on what exactly the play was about.

Anousha Alamian as the adult Amir, who also narrates the play, did not seem to own the stage as well as he might have. Granted, Amir is a very weak character, being dominated by his father, bullies and his own guilt, but when narrating a play one must have a certain presence on the stage. Alamian’s performance as the narrator was awkward during Act One when his younger self (portrayed by Conor Wylie) was also on stage. The performance evened out during Act Two when Alamian was actively portraying Amir as well as narrating the play. 

Michael Peng’s Baba was exceptionally well performed. His physicality easily allows him to portray a strong upstanding man, a refugee and finally a bankrupt and dying father.  The rest of the ensemble were also very strong, with notable performances by Gerry Mendicino as General Taheri, Norman Yeung as Hassan and Omar Alex Khan as Rahim Khan.

Also notable is the live drumming by Salar Nader. The musical texture was an excellent addition to the play, although at times it drowned out Alamian’s narration.

Kerem Cetinel’s lighting and set design were beautiful. The set was a simple small rake surrounded by a few steps, and some background drops of kites, deserts and the Golden Gate bridge, with lace curtains forming partitions to make rooms. The lighting was anything but simple. Instead of lighting the play like one might light a standard kitchen sink drama, Cetinel chooses to light it like a dance or a musical. Extensive use of colour, side and top lighting and haze effects bring the dream world of the play to life. But Cetinel is very judicious about which parts of the stage are lit, and there is constant shadow and darkness and this lends itself wonderfully to the mood of the play.

Gillian Gallow’s costumes tied Afghanistan perfectly with 1980’s San Francisco, leaving just enough elements of each in the costumes so that we were able to see the progression of each character through their wardrobe. When we finally come back to Afghanistan we are treated to a wardrobe that is not the same as the 1970’s but is clearly derivative of it. The effect works wonderfully.

Ultimately however, I was unclear on what exactly the play was about. I was able to follow the plot easily but the overall message of the play seemed to be lost or undecided. If it is about a boy standing up to the father figures in his life, Amir accomplishes this early on in Act Two. If it is about discovering his national identity and coming to terms with it, Amir’s feelings never seem to be resolved. If it is about forgiving himself for betraying his friend in some horrific ways, then I don’t know why I should care.

Amir is a coward and weak, and his guilt is not very compelling. Furthermore he never seems to come to terms with his failures until the very end of the play with little resolution. He is never called to account for his transgressions and simply gets away with it.

The script seemed to draw out unnecessarily the tedious setup and then skip right over most of the emotional and interesting parts of the story.  Even though all the scenes are movie short, there are too many of them with little to no substance - simple re-hashings of ideas. A perfect example of this is the sequence where Amir meets and falls for Soraya. We see his bumbling flirting attempts several times and then suddenly the play skips to them getting married without acknowledging that much time had passed. How did she come to love him? How did he persuade her overbearing father that he was worthy? None of these questions are answered. If time was the essence, we could have had one short scene that answers all of this, or it could have been covered clearly by the narration. Instead it’s all but ignored.

In the end you have a play that is mostly brilliantly performed, beautifully designed, but a story that is erratic and emotionally unsure of what it wants to say.

The Kite Runner continues to Feb. 24 at Theatre Calgary 

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