By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
HOMEBODYKABUL | By TONY KUSHNER | At BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATER, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley | Through July 14 | (510) 647-2949
Last month, Tony Kushner delivered Vassar College‘s commencement address, a dissertation of Emersonian grandeur on the beginning of the end of the world, and what to do about it: from a personal rumination on how to approach his speech, to his mockingly self-aggrandizing contempt for “moronic, wicked, corrupt critics,” to the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” (part of a verbal disemboweling of the Bush administration and its key players). All the while, Kushner spat out ironically Ashcroftian biblical cant -- he certainly wasn’t talking about Osama and his cronies when he referred to “agents of sin and of Satan” and the Book of Revelation, in which, Kushner quipped, Ashcroft appears “prominently, and not pleasantly, with bat wings and horns.”
Kushner‘s speech harked back to a monologue by a Jewish woman in his 1985 A Bright Room Called Day, which chronicles the rise of Hitler in Germany, and a group of lefty artists whose convictions melt in the sweltering Nazi heat. In another corner of the stage, representing America decades later, the woman spins poetical diatribes about the terrors of President Reagan and his charm-laced indifference to the poor and to AIDS. Many found the connection between Hitler and Reagan a reach and, well, offensive, reckless, infuriating -- at the very very least, provocative. That’s why I like Kushner. Thank God for his Angels in America, for the ferocity of his intelligence, the righteousness of his indignation, his wit, his rage, his outrage and outrageousness, his epic fanciful railings against tyranny.
Kushner‘s latest play, HomebodyKabul, is a love letter to Afghanistan, to the history, the agony and the savagery of the place, prophetically written before 911, though it does not contain a dire prediction of the World Trade Center bombing, except for one cryptic remark, which has been fiddled with since 911, about the Taliban coming to New York. The play is set in 1998, presumably when it was first commissioned as a monologue for the English actress Kika Markham. (In Homebody’s premiere at the New York Theater Workshop last December, the speech formed the entire first act. That 45-minute soliloquy now makes up the largest part of Act 1 in a three-act drama.)
Homebody has also received productions at London‘s Young Vic Theatre, Trinity Rep in Rhode Island and now at the Berkeley Rep, where it has been extended through July 14. (This production employs the same creative team -- director Tony Taccone and dramaturge Oscar Eustis -- that gave rise to Angels in America a decade ago at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater.) A completely different rendition of HomebodyKabul will open at the Mark Taper Forum in September.
That, in 1998, Kushner should have been obsessing on the tortured Valley of the Hindu Kush, then barely on our pop-culture radar, provides some indication of the playwright‘s shamanlike foresight, or good fortune. Then again, perhaps not: Had 911 not occurred, HomebodyKabul might have provided something closer to an epiphany about the intricacies of world politics and our belligerent imposition of our own contradictory standards on a foreign culture. What we get instead is a guidebook to a place we’ve just visited, via CNN. And though Kushner‘s play is prodigiously researched and, at times, luminously written, one leaves the theater with impressions enhanced and reinforced rather than re-conceived.
That said, the opening monologue is 45 minutes of bliss. An Englishwoman called Homebody (Michelle Morain) sits in a stuffed armchair holding a tattered, outdated (1965) guidebook to Kabul and proffers a baroque discourse on the region’s history, starting some 3,000 years before Christ. Why? “I love love love love the world! . . . My reading, my research is mothlike. Impassioned, fluttery, doomed.”
The history lesson is interrupted by a series of digressions on Homebody‘s personal life: on her estranged daughter, for instance, and particularly on her husband, who is infuriated not only by her penchant for using pretentious, scholarly vocabulary, but by the very sound of her voice. (“He has threatened to leave on this account, and so I rarely speak to him anymore. We both take powerful antidepressants.”) Because they have different prescriptions, Homebody samples her husband’s pills in order to understand what he might be feeling; he never reciprocates: “And I find his refusal to sample dull,” she says. “A little dull.”
Here, Morain looks down coyly with a girlish smile, before getting back to the events of 322 B.C. Such is the perfect elliptical construction of Kushner‘s recurring motifs, his wry humor and his muted scream, all contained within a soaring curiosity about the shape of history.
Homebody tells us about one of her rare trips outdoors, a sojourn to buy party hats. She meets a shop owner, an Afghan immigrant, whose fingers on one hand have been severed at a diagonal. And so opens another window on another world. In an unequivocally theatrical burst of magic, she displays the ornately decorated Afghan pillbox hats she purchased for £3.99 each -- part of the setup for the epic about to unfold. The lights slowly brighten behind the translucent backdrop of Kate Edmunds’ set, revealing a vast panorama of jagged concrete: Kabul.