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Adapted by the Rude Mechanicals from the comic strips by David Rees

Directed by Shawn Sides

At Woolly Mammoth to Oct. 14

Reports having filtered here from Edinburgh, London, and New York about 9 Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo’s solo show about the suffering and endurance of Iraqi women, you may be expecting, as I did, to be haunted by Raffo’s many voices. Instead, I find it’s her many faces I can’t get out of my head—Raffo, Raffo, and Raffo again—every one unique. The buoyant, rosy-cheeked teenager brushing hair out of her eyes as she blasts ’N Sync to drown out the sound of falling bombs. The pale, furious doctor retching from the stench of sewage in hospital corridors. As the performer wraps herself in a black abaya, she accents the jutting jaw of a Bedouin mother who’s grown used to being betrayed by the men in her life. Dropping it, she lets you see the faint arch in the eyebrow of an expat intellectual who raises a glass while noting that “exile in London is mostly scotch.”

Since I can still hear the smoky rasp with which that line was intoned, I suppose Raffo’s voices are haunting me too—especially those she gives to an anxious young American and her terrified Iraqi aunt, frantically calling each other on the eve of the bombing of Baghdad. When they finally make contact, they bleat a refrain of anguished “I love you”s to bridge the linguistic and physical distance separating them. The aunt, in deeply accented sobs, and the niece, in fevered reassurances, repeat that single phrase for long minutes, until its sound is that of a rushing river of pain.

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That image occurs to me because water figures so frequently in the thoughts of the playwright, who has characters speak of groundwater contaminated by depleted uranium so that tomatoes grow gigantic but have 84 times the safe level of radiation, and mothers who eat them give birth to babies with two heads. She also gives the opening soliloquy to a Christian Iraqi who sees her country in biblical terms (“We were promised so much; the Garden of Eden was here, its roots and its rivers”), and who notes, darkly, that streams that once ran black with the ink of burned libraries have now taken on the color of shoes—the shoes of the dead that wash up on their shores.

Raffo’s women are breathtakingly articulate, at times self-consciously so. You can hear the author reaching for poetry as she chronicles their suffering, and at times she risks over-reaching. But Raffo is also a canny interpreter of her own script, and as Joanna Settle’s staging sends her ricocheting around Antje Ellermann’s rubble-strewn stage, she is almost invariably at her most down-to-earth when the language is most elevated. Her performance is fearless, her characters vividly human, and while it’s hard to describe 9 Parts of Desire without making it sound unbearably earnest, Raffo brings the evening vibrantly alive.

Using decommissioned overhead projectors reclaimed from the Enron meltdown, the Rude Mechanicals of Austin, Texas, are offering their own take on Iraq—satirical, mocking, and generally pissed-off.

“So how’re you enduring your freedom,” asks a troupe member at the top of Get Your War On, and the Rude Mechs are off and running, waxing comic on “the supersizing of grief,” mocking the Cato Institute, and riffing on Bushian blunders. Based on David Rees’ ironic Internet comic strip, the show takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation in which Rees’ clip-art figures are embodied by five performers who race around the stage, manipulating projected transparencies to turn a long horizontal screen behind them into a sort of animated version of the strip.

Planes fly from panel to panel, profanity spews freely (there’s an onscreen “fuck” count at one point), and punch lines land with almost alarming precision. “Wouldn’t it be weird,” asks someone during a riff on war finances and nation-building, “if in 20 years, Iraq had a functioning social security system, and we didn’t?”

When cast members aren’t cracking wise, they’re sometimes donning costumes—a cloth cylinder allows one antic fellow to soliloquize as Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube—but not so often that the evening descends into sketch-comedy territory. The energy level stays high (fueled by several strategically placed boxes of doughnuts), and the comic tone rarely strays from fiercely literate, with the emphasis mostly on fierce. The performance I attended played every bit as angry as it did funny, which seemed to suit the audience just fine.CP