HOMEBODY/KABUL by Tony Kushner, directed by Jon Michaelson, with Fiona Reid, Lesley Faulkner, Sanjay Talwar, Michael Spencer-Davis and Deena Aziz. Presented by Mercury Stage in association with Culturate Inc. at Berkeley Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews begin May 18 (Friday), opens May 21 (Monday) and runs to June 9, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinees May 19, 26 and 30 at 1:30 pm. $17.50. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Actor Sanjay Talwar shook his head in admiration and a bit of concern when he realized that in Homebody/Kabul he has to speak a multiplicity of languages.
But that's only the start of the striking complexities in Tony Kushner's epic work, whose subjects include prejudice, displacement, war, family and poetry. Mercury Stage Productions offers its Canadian premiere.
Kushner, author of the magnificent Angels In America, one of the most ambitious and moving plays of the past 50 years, here begins with the unnamed Homebody, a well-to-do, articulate British woman who feels pangs of unspecific guilt and discovers a remedy for them in a travel book about the Afghan city of Kabul.
After her opening monologue, the play, set in 1998, moves to that city, where her husband, Milton, and daughter Priscilla seek the Homebody-no-longer; she's gone to Afghanistan and has apparently been murdered in Kabul.
What follows is an intricate threading of themes, characters and, yes, languages - everything from English, French and German to Pashtun, Dari and Esperanto. All the characters, even those who never meet onstage, significantly influence each other.
Talwar plays Khwaja, who takes Priscilla under his protection when she wanders out into the Taliban-ruled city looking for her mother's disappeared body.
"He's a mahram by profession," says Talwar, who's done fine work both at Stratford and with indie theatre companies here in Toronto. "The mahram is a beautiful, practical invention in societies that don't allow unescorted women to function outside the home. I could blithely call him a rent-an-uncle, because that's the role he plays for Priscilla, who dons a burqa and wanders around this well-policed city."
Khwaja, a member of the minority Tajiks, also presents himself as a poet who writes in Esperanto, and in payment for his services he asks Priscilla to take his works back to England with her.
"It's always fascinating for me to play a character who is both always what he seems and not at all what he seems. It's hard to pin him down, as is the case for many of the other characters.
Kushner's figures cause the audience - and the actors, too - to question their assumptions about people from the East or the West."
"And while she seems simpler at first than Khwaja, Priscilla keeps revealing more aspects of her personality," offers performer Lesley Faulkner. "She's grown up in a house where there hasn't been a lot of communication or affection, and she desperately wants some connection with her mother.
"She's an angry female at that midpoint between girl and woman, and the search for her mother leads to different, unexpected feelings in a country where the security she's known at home doesn't exist for her.
"Something springs loose, wakes up, and she begins to understand herself and her place in the world a little better."
With its pre-9/11 time frame, the play allows a surprising voice to the Taliban, who came to power in Kabul some two years before the action begins.
The word "taliban," says Talwar, means student or scholar.
"But Kushner's not an apologist for Afghanistan or anyone else," he adds. "All the information he offers is a way for the audience to understand what the characters go through. He wants you to know them, love them, hope that they succeed in their quests."
Working with a script as good as Kushner's helps in a situation where actors could get overwhelmed by the epic story.
"It's about getting to the small things and making them more precise," notes Talwar.
"You trust in the map, the skeleton, that Kushner's created. The writing is so fine, the story is so accessible and mesmerizing, that there's always something to discover."
"He writes huge, massive ideas, but he tells his story by means of the human experience," adds Faulkner. "No viewer can fail to understand that."