Thursday, 21 March 2013

Staging of Kite Runner keeps story aloft

                                                                                              Photo by Trudie Lee
The kite flying scene in the Citadel production of the stage adaptation
of the novel The Kite Runner


Bill Rankin

One thing that's almost certain is that Yann Martel's Life of Pi will not be adapted for the stage after the cinematically spectacular treatment Ang Lee gave it. Khaled Hosseini's bestseller The Kite Runner, however, has in just ten years been the source of both a successful film and most recently, a stage adaptation, which the Citadel Theatre, in collaboration with Theatre Calgary, is presenting until the end of the month.

Matthew Spangler's play, to give it credit, serves the original, compelling family drama well. The playwright  has planted a narrator in the middle of the drama, which makes following the story of the Afghan religious and class conflicts and the characters' personal challenges pre-and-post Taliban an effortless experience. The audience is told the story as a reader would read a story to an interested listener; the theatrical overlay, however, emerges only intermittently as the central reason for coming to the theatre to experience the undeniable drama of The Kite Runner story. The words, more than the play, are the thing.

In Act One, the narrator, Amir, performed engagingly by Anousha Almanian, tells the story of his youth in Kabul, where he lived an upper-class life with his father, Baba (Michael Peng). In those days, in Afghanistan before Baba and Amir flee their war-torn country for refuge in San Francisco, leaving behind their wealth and social status, the motherless family had a faithful servant whose son, Hassan, was Amir's playmate. The boys played like friends, but Amir's sense of class entitlement prevented him from seeing Hassan (Norman Yeung) as his equal; he was his servant, the kite runner of the title, who fetches the downed competitors' kites during the annual kite fighting competition that Amir participated in with Hassan's assistance.

The dramatic tension of The Kite Runner comes from a moment after the kite-flying episode when Amir betrays Hassan in a cowardly sin of omission. The moral failure is the dramatic centre of The Kite Runner. The boys' relationship is never the same, and eventually they lose touch with each other after Hassan and his father leave Baba's household and Amir and Baba leave Kabul for the States.

There are several effective theatrical scenes in this adaptation, and some very good performances, especially from Peng and in the second act, Gerry Mendicino as Amir's father-in-law. The kite flying tournament captures the aggression and elation in Amir's desperate attempt to be the last kite flying as his somewhat neglectful father had been in his youth. The father's unfatherly ambivilence toward Amir turns out to be a complicating aspect of the plot that becomes clear much later in the play after Amir has grown up and settled into married life in America.

As the narration reveals the story of betrayal and relative redemption, the play the actors control moves in and out of focus. When Spangler gives the actors control of the drama, a night-in-the-theatre experience gets some needed energy.

Often, the secondary role the actors play makes the play seem like a grade-school theatrical, and stage designer Kerem Cetinel's colourful pastel backdrop in the happier scenes of Amir's childhood do elevate the mood of the staging in ways even an effective storyteller can't. The simplicity of the stage design reinforces the skeletal aspects of Spangler's dramatization to great effect. There is a coherence to the understated way the setting is laid out.

However, since the story touches on Afghanistan's violent history during the Soviet invasion and later the maniacal Taliban consolidation of power, some multimedia effects might have intensified the part the back story plays in the domestic drama. We don't need scenes of Taliban execution festivals in the Kabul stadium, but reminders on scrims of the actual Soviet and Taliban effects on Afghan life might have helped us imagine these characters' lives more vividly and reduced the need for a narrator to keep us interested.

Director Eric Rose had a challenge working with this language-heavy adaptation, but his approach to the theatrical aspects of the play is fluid. The scenes in Act Two, when Amir's childhood bully, Assef (Ali Momen) reappears as a Taliban overlord and when the older Amir constructs his new life among the Afghan diaspora in San Francisco, are tightly managed and do empower the actors to tell their version of the story.

This Canadian premiere of Hosseini's story, which has also garnered the attention of a filmmaker, is weakened by the playwright's attachment to the original medium, but the strong story itself, played out in all its disturbing and moderately uplifting aspects in this theatrical version, deserves an audience in whatever medium it comes to it.

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