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Suffocating in the religious zealotry - R.H. Joseph

It is easy to speak highly of Tony Kushner's play "Homebody/Kabul." What is difficult is deciding toward whom one should address one's enthusiasms.

Presented in three segments at Horizon Theatre, the first is fundamentally a soliloquy comprised of dazzling verbal pyrotechnics and sardonic humor. This aspect of Kushner's scintillating achievement is guaranteed to delight those of penetrating intellect and refined aesthetic.

Unfortunately, defining it thus makes clear many may perceive the clever results of Kushner's efforts as so much gobbledygook. Though intellectually radiant, perception is everything.

Assigned the task of delivering this voluble tour-de-force, Carolyn Cook brings to the written word a personality and a performance commensurate with Kushner's achievement. The right audience may wish Cook's performance captured on DVD so they could rerun it to their heart's content.

As it is, once Cook's "Homebody" has concluded her exposition she disappears for the entirety of the production. Pity!

With the conclusion of her performance the play redefines itself as a lamentation upon the fate of the Afghan people.

More precisely, the play was written and takes place prior to the defeat of the Taliban and concerns the inter-tribal antagonisms of those many subcultures that have occupied the lands now referred to as Afghanistan.

In doing so its mood switches from the ebulliently loony to the essentially lugubrious. However, the talent employed to express this change of pace maintains the level of excellence first demonstrated by Cook.

And the talent is not limited to the actors. Though some of the dialogue is expressed in languages indigenous to Afghanistan and is therefore unintelligible – whether Pashto or Dari (Afghan Persian) I cannot say, nor can I differentiate these autochthonous languages from Esperanto, which is also spoken – considerable credit must be assigned the director, Vincent Murphy, for these moments are no less gripping.

Murphy's mastery of his craft allows the unfolding human drama immediate accessibility though the specifics of the conversations remain impenetrable.

Regarding the plot segue, Homebody left the security of England to tour Afghanistan despite the violence and misogyny of the Taliban regime, and is reported to have suffered the most appalling of fates.

Thus it is that her husband Milton (Charles Horton) and daughter Priscilla (Monica Williamson) follow her to Afghanistan in an attempt to reclaim the body.

Those who have enjoyed Horton's many accomplished performances in Atlanta will be delighted to discover a whimsical, batty side to the apparently straight-laced thespian. He is aided in these antics by Harold M. Leaver, an actor who has already won the hearts of Horizon Theatre audiences by his performance in the annual seasonal delirium known as "The SantaLand Diaries."

As counterpoint to the drug-induced mania affected by these two, Williamson's Priscilla is a foul-mouthed, pushy Westerner determined to find her mother's remains by force of will in a country that treats its women like chattel.

To her good fortune she comes first upon a guide played by Barry Stewart Mann, an enlightened individual who writes poetry in Esperanto (and through this gimmick allows a perspective on the harsh impositions of legalism on the Afghans) and, more importantly, knows someone who knows something about Priscilla's mother.

The addition of each actor not only reinforces the qualitative level of the production but introduces additional facets of the unfortunate situation Kushner is attempting to illuminate.

With the introduction of Zai Garshi (Geoffrey D. Williams) the playwright allows us to contemplate a world devoid of sensual pleasure, in Garshi's case, music. (The resonance of the effects of theocratic rule is particularly chilling in an America increasingly dominated by similar religious zealots.)

Garshi, in turn, introduces not only a compelling character, Mahala, but a dynamic actor, Donna Biscoe. Kushner utilizes Mahala to illustrate the rage felt by those politically disenfranchised by dominant external forces. Not only are the women dominated by the paternalistic religion practiced by the Taliban, Afghanistan itself is shown to be a victim, a pawn of international power politics.

"Homebody/Kabul" is packed with material deserving of reflection – jam packed. It is a perfect illustration of why artists and their work are feared and censored by archly conservative regimes.

The play's substantive and provocative erudition will alienate those who take refuge in intellectual inertia and intractable world views. Therefore, is serves as an illustration of how all such artistic achievement becomes a threat to whatever state is dominated by the lackluster and the unimaginative.

Clearly Kushner realized the quality of his achievement, the universality underlying his condemnation of the Taliban.

Though his perception is accurate it does have a downside: he was unwilling to cut anything in his quest to speak to these issues.

This, in turn, forces me to offer a caveat with my unequivocal appreciation of the play and production. The curtain is at 7 p.m. and I got back in my car at 10 minutes till 11. It doesn't drag, it fascinates, but it does so for a long time.