STORIES FROM THE RAINS OF LOVE AND DEATH by Abas Na'lbandian, translated and adapted by Soheil Parsa and Peter Farbridge, directed by Parsa, with Stewart Arnott, Nita Costa, Mark Ellis, Farbridge, John Gilbert, Daniel Karasik, Stavroula Logothettis and Andrew Scorer. Presented by Modern Times Stage Company at Artword (75 Portland). Previews begin Friday (October 31), opens Wednesday (November 5) and runs to November 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $20-$25, Sunday matinee pwyc, previews $15. 416-366-7723. Rating: NNNNN
Two mysterious figures wait by a deserted well for someone to show up. A mother and daughter argue over a man's corpse in their bed. A teacher and his student form a dreamlike and frightening relationship. If you think you're in a world created by Beckett, Genet or Kafka, you're not far from the truth. The creator of these figures is Abas Na'lbandian, a playwright little known outside his native Iran. Even there, he and his work were vilified.
The episodes are from Na'lbandian's Stories From The Rains Of Love And Death, a 1977 work that has yet to be staged in Iran. Thanks to Modern Times Stage Company, Toronto audiences had a taste of the show in SummerWorks 2002, where director Soheil Parsa scored a success presenting four of the five short scenes.
Now Modern Times mounts the whole play, providing us - as Parsa has done since the late 80s - with another aspect of the strikingly emotive Persian theatre that's the company's trademark. Parsa has also effectively interpreted works by Chekhov and Shakespeare, using Persian stage techniques, first here and then on tour to his homeland.
Na'lbandian's own life would make an effective piece of drama. Poor by birth and without any theatre training, he began writing for the stage and was hailed in the 70s by Iranian avant-garde artists.
Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, his works were prohibited as immoral and the playwright was jailed several times. He committed suicide in 1989.
His characters have an intentional ambiguity once you go beneath the surface.
"We find further layers in the text rehearsal after rehearsal," says Stavroula Logothettis, a vibrant performer who's new to this show but travelled to Iran last January in Modern Times's production of Macbeth. But Stories is not at all impenetrable.
"The audience won't respond to a scene with, 'What the hell was that?' because Soheil encourages us to fill in the humanity of the characters."
"He's going for that human reality even more than in the SummerWorks version," says returning actor Stewart Arnott. "Then we only had six days to rehearse, but here we have the time to flesh out the characters."
Arnott clearly respects his fellow director, who works, as he does, in a collaborative fashion. Arnott's better known here in Toronto as a performer - he played Gonzalo in The Tempest last summer - but out of town he's helmed Unity (1918), It's All True and Master Harold And The Boys, all in the past year. We'd love to see more of his directing here.
In this production, both actors have to contend with relatively explicit sexual scenes.
"There's a wonderful sensuality to the piece, like silk moving against bare skin," offers the vibrant Logothettis. "Sometimes it's tantalizing, sometimes hair-raising."
"But linked to that is a disturbing roughness," adds Arnott, "a violence in almost every scene, and a constant questioning of the idea of love. Does it exist? Is it defined by its absence? When two people have sex, is it romance or just a fuck?"
He's the one who has to be nude onstage in the first scene, but he doesn't give much thought to disrobing, since it fits the action and isn't gratuitous.
"I don't think of myself as nude," he laughs. "Instead of worrying about a costume as the play begins, I just give a momentary thought to what I don't wear in the scene."
It didn't cause Logothettis much concern, either, but she felt she had to warn her mother that she'd be seeing her daughter in bed with a naked man.
"'Are you nude?' my mother asked me suspiciously. 'No,' I replied.
"'That's OK, then. '"