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9 Parts of Desire @ Berkeley Rep

Giving Voice to the Women of Iraq

Heather Raffo's exquisitely written, tautly acted play "9 Parts of Desire" is the kind of one-woman show that leaves viewers breathless at the very outset. For one thing, it's both topical and startlingly original. After all, how many portrayals of Iraqi women have we seen beyond the distorted media platitudes lamenting the unilateral plight of Middle Eastern females?

Raffo wrote "9 Parts of Desire" after a trip to the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad in 1993, where she had an epiphany upon viewing a painting of a nude women clinging to a dead tree. Moved by this unlikely, harrowing portrait of femininity, Raffo began interviewing Iraqi women and gradually weaved a number of the collected stories into a memorable piece of drama that reflects the present-day War on Terror.

Actress Mozhan MarnÚ's bravura performance is a poignant and dignified portrayal of a diverse group of women connected by the ravages of war. MarnÚ portrays nine of them in this one-woman show; it's difficult not to be moved by how deftly she summons the voices of her interviewees.

The manner in which MarnÚ moves from character to character is unsettling yet effective. She portrays a Christian woman in New York struggling to find out whether the family she left back home is still alive, only to transit impeccably into an Iraqi teenager watching MTV, distracted from her activity by a succession of bombs somewhere in her village. MarnÚ's impassioned portrayal of women, from artists to doctors to leftist activists, is generally seamless -- they are all Iraqi women, but her characters are strewn across the world and run the gamut from being pro-war to anti-war. They are rich and poor, young and old, and so politically and culturally diverse, that it's crystal-clear Raffo is slamming up against the false image of the burkah-clad, cowed and helpless Iraqi woman. The pacing of the show is aided by a sparse, elegant backdrop of broken mosaic and cement blocks, sweeping viewers into some of the most devastating terrain imaginable.

Raffo's play will be lauded by anti-war proponents, but her characters belie any simple critique, for she also tells the stories of women who are staunchly pro-war -- such as a London activist who was a victim of torture under Saddam's regime. Another one of Raffo's portraits, of a woman who suffered tremendously under the Baathist regime and who continues to suffer in the violent aftermath of war, paints a complex picture of exploitation under an assortment of disguises: tyranny, democracy, liberation, and unrest.

The decision to render Iraqi women affected by the war in a plethora of ways is a testament to the interconnectedness of their stories. Ultimately, the fractured nation Raffo pieces together through a succession of excruciating perspectives is one that is evoked with intelligence, dignity, and an unblinking propensity to lull viewers out of their safely cultivated ideals.

9 Parts of Desire runs through March 5.
at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tickets: $30 - $48