One of the joys of immersing yourself in a good book or a great play is the opportunity to lose track of yourself. You become so involved with another person's life or culture that it feels a bit strange when you exit that experience and have to readjust to living your own life again.
That is the rush one gets upon reading The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini that spins a luxuriant weave of sights, smells, and behaviors that place you in the Afghanistan of 30 odd years ago. The theatrical version of that book, as adapted by Matthew Spangler, is now at the Cleveland Play House. While this production captures some of Hosseini's magic in spurts and flashes, a clunky narrative device prevents this piece from resonating as fully as it might.
Following the storyline of the book religiously, the play tells of the wealthy and coddled boy Amir, born lucky into the privileged Pashtun class. His servant Hassan, although the same age and reared side-by-side with Amir, is a "flat nose" Hazara, an ethnic minority much persecuted in Afghanistan.
Still, they are close friends, playing together and competing as partners in all-important kite-flying competitions. But this isn't Metroparks kite flying, as each team dips its kite strings in ground glass and glue — the better to slice opponents' strings and emerge triumphant. Amir is the kite flyer and Hassan runs after the downed kites, thus the title.
Covering three decades and two continents, the plot traces how Amir betrays his friend more than once, then later in life reaches for redemption by interceding in Hassan's son's life. Although touching all the bases, this effort to cover the entire time span of the book — not to mention gargantuan issues such as the fall of a monarchy, a Russian invasion, the rise of the Taliban, and culturally approved pedophilia — requires each scene to speed by. As a result, we are not immersed in this person's life as much as repeatedly dipped in and out.
Clearly, adaptor Spangler believes he needs a device to ramrod this story to its conclusion, so the grown-up Amir serves as the narrator throughout. This might work in more deft hands, but Spangler uses Amir-the-narrator to spoon-feed information that would be much better left to the audience to figure out for itself.
For instance, when Hassan is viciously assaulted by local bullies led by future Taliban thug Assef (a most intimidating Zarif Kabier Sadiqi), young Amir runs away as Amir-the-narrator intones, "I ran away because I was a coward." Okay, thanks for clearing that up. Amir-the-narrator just won't shut up, which is a shame because many of the scenes work wonderfully on their own.
When he's just being the grown-up Amir, a believable Jos Viramontes is wounded by his past but summons enough courage to eventually do the right thing. As his father Baba, who hides a secret about Hassan that is revealed in the emotional denouement, Nasser Faris is a refreshing character. He drinks scotch even though his religion forbids it, and he is an unrepentant hater of Russians, after what they did to his country's people.
Young Amir is played by Jose Peru Flores with appropriate youthful arrogance. Matt Pascua is pretty nondescript as Hassan, but sparks to life as Hassan's son Sohrab, who as a teen finds himself dressed as a girl and abused by his Afghan captors. When Sohrab pleads with the elder Amir to rescue him, Pascua makes the pain and fear immediate and real. In small roles, James Saba is a treat as an ex-flower-child lawyer trying to help grown Amir take Sohrab to America, and Annie Pesch shines in her few moments as Mrs. Nguyen, the feisty proprietor of an L.A. bodega.
The entire performance is infused with the engrossing tabla music rendered by Salar Nader. If you closed your eyes and just listened to Nader play, you would have justified the admission price. They should be selling CDs of his stuff in the lobby.
Given the limitations — and the grandiose intentions — of the script, director Marc Masterson keeps the pace crisp and finds ways to bring humor into this often-tragic tale. Act Two opens with a cultural montage of California in the 1980s, complete with big hair, boom boxes, and skateboards. It's pretty hilarious, while also showing what a big transition Baba and Amir face when they move to the States.
Perhaps inevitably, given the Afghan culture, women are almost invisible here. Grown Amir falls in love and marries Soraya (Aadya Bedi), the daughter of another refugee from his country. But this romance and marriage are handled perfunctorily.
The set design by Michael B. Raiford is composed of elegant Persian-style screens, some that fill the stage and others that slide to define specific places, such as Baba's study. But a large hunk of rock is used in many of the scenes in Afghanistan, a stark counterpoint to the delicacy that surrounds it.
That rough contrast is in evidence throughout The Kite Runner, in the inherent conflict among people who are so close to each other yet cannot connect. And even if the conclusion is a bit too comfortable and easy, the essence of Hosseini's story still hits home: Love, guilt, and redemption are the same, no matter the country.
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