THE VEIL written and directed by Shahin Sayadi (OneLight). At Studio Theatre, Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). To December 8. $20-$23. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNN
The Veil, based on Iranian writer Masoud Behnoud 's novel, takes its audience on a trip through time and space, providing a history lesson about a country most viewers know little about.
We first meet its central character, Khanoom, when she returns to Iran with her granddaughter Nanaz. Khanoom's daughter is in jail for unspecified reasons, and the older woman fills the time (and the play) explaining to Nanaz why she feels rooted in the country; as Khanoom relates her history, Nanaz steps into the role of her grandmother as a young woman.
The epic narrative is intentionally episodic as we follow the young princess Khanoom from her time in the Persian court to Russia, Turkey, France and Germany. The travelling is not for pleasure, though; she and other family members flee for their lives, first from a tyrannical Persian shah and later from enemy forces during various revolutions and two world wars.
What's fascinating about the sometimes poetic piece is the voice it gives to women in the male-dominated Middle Eastern society. Khanoom's anti-monarchist aunt Nezhat, for example, is an outspoken feminist and promoter of a constitutional government; she, Khanoom's mother and the princess all suffer as a result.
It feels like playwright/director Shahin Sayadi stages only highlights of the novel, for we leap quickly from one story to the next; some narrative points are glossed over or ignored. The result is a show full of incident but less full of drama, one that stops rather than ends, leaving the audience with questions about Khanoom and Nanaz's journey to Iran.
Sayadi's design, a white backdrop for projections and differently coloured bolts of cloth, can be intriguing. At one point, to signal chaos in France at the end of the Second World War, the backdrop's seven panels are twisted into a skewed cat's cradle and interlaced with red and blue material suggesting the French flag. But at times the backdrop's shifting becomes unnecessarily fussy; if the goal is simplicity, it's not reached.
The performances are committed and sometimes memorable. Valerie Buhagiar is incandescent as the older Khanoom, always emotionally involved in the storytelling even when she's on the sidelines and others enact her tale. She's well matched by Genevieve Steele 's energetic work as the passionate, fearless Nezhat and later the French maid who cares for the unhappily married Khanoom.