Dialogic Dialectic

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.

The opening monologue is now finished, and so is Homebody. We learn from a conversation between her husband, Milton (Charles Shaw Robinson), and a local doctor (Julian Lopez-Morillas) that Homebody had arrived in Kabul unescorted, face exposed, wearing jeans and carrying a portable CD player, and that she is said to have been torn literally limb from limb by the Taliban. Yet in the play‘s central mystery, the family is not shown her remains, raising discomfiting speculation. Perhaps she has chosen to dispose of everything in her Western past, including her husband and daughter, Priscilla (Heidi Dippold). Curiously, Milton seems almost relieved by the prospect of his wife’s demise, preferring to shoot heroin or to languish in an opium den with a British non-government agent named Quango Twistleton (Bruce McKenzie) -- a self-described “character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.” Priscilla begins a reckless crusade to make contact with her mother, dead or alive, while a gentle Tajik writer (Harsh Nayyar) tries to persuade her to smuggle his Esperanto “poems” -- which may or may not contain a terrorist plot -- to a London contact.

One can only speculate on why, as the play expands theatrically from monologue to epic drama, its artistry contracts. Other than the self-knowing Homebody and a literate Pashtun woman (Jacqueline Antaramian) desperate to escape to the West, the characters feel no weightier than a Brechtian cartoon. Or perhaps it‘s just the performances. (Dippold’s Priscilla weeps and whines her way through almost two and a half hours, as though, without her crying a river, we won‘t understand how upset she is about her mum.) In either case, after such a great setup, one can’t help but feel a certain deflation.

HomebodyKabul‘s scenario was apparently inspired by an actual Englishwoman who arrived in Kabul, unescorted and underdressed, and was put on the next plane home. So Homebody’s making it through customs is already a bit of a stretch. But why would somebody this knowledgeable and reflective come to the city under such circumstances? What was she thinking? Whatever it was rubs against the breadth of the intelligence displayed in her monologue. And why does Priscilla wander around Kabul with an exposed midriff and a CD player peeking out from under her opened burka -- the costume is specified by Kushner -- knowing that her mother might have been ripped to pieces for making just such a display of herself? Whether this is a comment on Western arrogance or merely on Priscilla‘s suicidal tendencies, it, too, chafes.

And yet, with all such frictions and the blisters that ensue, HomebodyKabul is an important play, and Kushner’s voice is heroic and rare.

In a 1996 Salon interview, Kushner points out the primary distinction between screenwriting and playwriting: “Screenwriting is primarily a narrative art -- and I don‘t think that’s true of playwriting, which is dialogic and dialectic.” With the possible exception of Donald Freed, Kushner is the only American playwright grappling with history on such an epic scale while performing somersaults with words, reminding us that poetry and politics can -- and should -- share the same stage.


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