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Flash Review 3, 9-29: Letting It All Out
Walking Rumi's Spiritual Path at La MaMa

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2000 Terry Hollis

Mahmood Karimi-Hakak petitioned the official censors of the Iranian regime 125 times to put on productions in Tehran theaters. He was rejected 124 times. In 1999 he was allowed to mount a production of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for 45 performances in an abandoned theater, but the fourth performance was raided by Revolutionary Guards. Although Karimi-Hakak was not imprisoned, he was advised to leave the country. After making art under these kinds of conditions you realize why manipulations of the voice and naked outbursts of speech figure so heavily into the selections from Jalal al-Din Muhammad's "Mathnavi" presented last night at La MaMa. The spiritual path the performers took was boisterous, passionate, humorous, and very, very vocal.

Rumi wrote "Masnavi-ye Manavi" as a six-volume poem that cut across all spiritual and ethnic boundaries. Many Sufis place it second only to the Koran. As we enter the theater a large pipe and canvas pavilion stand at the center of the stage and a tower of pipes shoots straight through the center. The audience is fascinated as we watch a performer circle the tower, never losing contact with the structure. He appears to embrace a trance-like state as his circles expand and contract and he works his way, imperceptibly, up the tower. As the rest of the performers file in, the musicians begin playing with more intensity and the mix of chanting voices fills the room with a vibrating, humming sensation. The cast settles in, sitting facing into the circle, and vocalists Monika Jalili and Mehdi Meigani move around the group singing on top of their chanting but somehow, causing no clash with them. The piece seems to rely on layering material: voices over movement over music. The effect could become assaultive until you learn to take in the entire experience as a whole and not try to decode each element.

Mathnavi appears to be non-linear. The piece slides in and out of moods ranging from anger to jealousy to bliss, and the performers use their voices as announcements of what is to come. Not in words but guttural rattles, high-pitched squeals and strange combinations of laughing and wailing. Revelations seem to bounce around the group; we hear it first in Spanish, then it's cut mid-way to be taken up in Turkish or French. During all of this the group revels in each other's spiritual travels. Shouting, clapping, and pointing their fingers in approval, they help each other along and pass wisdom and interpretation from person to person. There are a few odd movement sections that make use of a balletic, lyrical vocabulary but they seem out of place because so much of the piece registers as an experience and is not so presentational. What Karimi-Hakak does contribute in terms of movement are contorted and anguished postures that could just as easily stand for pleasure or pain. The brief, hilarious section on adultery features a clumsy romp for two while the unknowing husband is up in a tree searching for a non-existent fruit. The group takes on the passion of the couple and the accusations of the husband by thrusting and tensing their bodies to fit the dialogue.

At the end of the work there is a beautiful section that places each actor under an individual lamp; chanting to themselves, they each divulge their ideas about death. As they continue to speak, one person moves to each of them and repeats: "...Never lost by dying." Whatever their fears or confusions were, they are easily calmed by this simple statement. As the piece illustrates, being able to voice your concerns puts them into the mix with everyone else. Allowing yourself to express your ecstasy makes it real, and feeling all of life's emotions completely is the best way to know you've been here.

"Mathnavi" continues at La MaMa Thursdays through Sundays through October 15. For more info, please call 212-475-7710.

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