'9 Parts of Desire' depicts personal costs of Iraq conflict

Kate Eifrig's performance in 9 Parts of Desire is a tour de force, in more ways than one

Kate Eifrig's performance in 9 Parts of Desire is a tour de force, in more ways than one

at the Guthrie Theater Dowling Studio
through March 23

at Mixed Blood Theatre
through March 22

The debate over the Iraq war and occupation might seem muted now, weighed down by ineluctable reality and cost, though this is itself admittedly a position made possible by safety and luxury. The finer points of political right and wrong, after all, are so much easier to debate when one has never been on the receiving end of an aerial bombardment.

Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire depicts nine girls and women of varying ages, eight Iraqi and one American, played on an open stage by a single actress (Kate Eifrig). It's difficult to imagine a more vivid illustration of both the war's effects and the rotten, sadistic society that it deposed, one in which a care-worn yet cavalier artist chillingly describes how enduring years of rape while designing tributes to Saddam were the tickets to her success.

Eifrig and director Joel Sass create a psychic space that intensifies when it needs to, yet never resorts to histrionics (Raffo's detail-rich dialogue makes its horrible case without needing embellishment). Eifrig starts out as a lonely woman fishing empty shoes from the river, then transforms into a Bedouin discussing her feelings for the first time in her life. Eifrig is despondent as a doctor cataloguing the birth defects afflicting Iraqi children after radiation exposure, then cagey as a young girl describing how the American soldiers "look like Justin Timberlake." Most haunting, perhaps, is her depiction of a mother leading a tour of a bomb shelter where she lost her child.

This is a fine, purposeful, and accomplished piece of work, and as such it resists easy formulations. Part of the point here is to face what we have wrought in Iraq, yes, but a universal element finally emerges. Eifrig caps off a revelatory performance by dropping to her knees, her voice rising and falling in register as she repeats the words I love you, all nine of her characters coursing through her like some timeless kaleidoscope of suffering. Reality is a mirror, after all, and inhumanity to (wo)man is a charge to which the entire species might need to be brought to trial.

THERE ARE FEW RARER and more potent intoxicants than the notion that someone has understood "our true secret selves," as Ram (Rajesh Bose) puts it in Aditi Brennan Kapil's Love Person. In this distinctive and deceptively weighty new play, Kapil juggles Sanskrit, American Sign Language, and English to search for the meanings behind word and gesture, and that small part inside us that we reserve for a select few.

On the surface, though, it's your standard romantic rectangle. Ram, a fussy Sanskrit translator, briefly romances party girl Vic (Jennifer Maren, in a sweet performance that never condescends to her character) but dismisses her as a lightweight until he begins exchanging late-night emails with her that win his heart. The catch is that his real correspondent is Vic's deaf sister, Free (Alexandria Wailes), who should either know better or perhaps restrict her electronic correspondence to her lover, Maggie (Erin McGovern).

Risa Brainin directs with an eye to keeping the pace swift and conversational, though winning detail abounds. Wailes is smug and brittle, her character walled off not by silence but by emotional isolation; her scenes in ASL with McGovern, with translations flashed on screens overhead, are among the most affecting of the evening. Ram's wrestling with translating Sanskrit love poetry into English affords Bose similar territory to express the limits of expression (both emotional and linguistic).

For a writer of such facility, Kapil ironically has crafted a drama that dreams of being freed from language, enjoying an expression of even greater purity than words allow. At the end, Ram and Vic are headed for the altar, though he and Free have time for a final exchange; it's a beautiful, perfectly pitched moment, and more than enough to make us contemplate all of the unvoiced dimensions that unreel whenever we dare to speak the word love. Or, for that matter, use it in an email.