‘9 Parts of Desire’ resists easy explanations

Kate Eifrig in Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire
Photo by Michal Daniel
Kate Eifrig portrays nine Iraqi women in her first one-actor play.

Editor’s note: Please share your comments about “9 Parts of Desire” below. Although it opens Wednesday, some of you might have seen it in previews. What questions arose for you?

“9 Parts of Desire,” the play opening Wednesday at the Guthrie Theater, takes its title from an aphorism attributed to the great seventh-century imam, Ali ibn Abu Taleb:

“God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men.”

Well, there’s a pungent observation — one open to intriguing interpretations. But I couldn’t pin down an explanation from Kate Eifrig, the actor portraying nine Iraqi women in the play, or from Joel Sass, who is directing Eifrig in her one-woman performance.

“There are lots of ways to interpret it,” Eifrig said. “The great thing about the play is that it will give you no answers, but it will raise a lot of questions.”

She continued: “It’s not about Iraq specifically. It’s stories from people who are too often silenced. This group of stories happens to be centered around nine women who have Iraq connections. But it’s not a play about a war or about politics. It’s about how people make connections, about how they long to be heard.” (Eifrig discusses the play and her roles here.)

Sass offered an equally tantalizing (at least, to me) assessment:

“Unlike some lesser written works that have a political context, this play is ruthlessly objective and nonpartisan,” he said. “It resists easy resolution or sermonizing.”

That said, there’s no denying that “9 Parts of Desire” hinges on the impact of living in a country ruled as a Stalinist nightmare for 30 years, including a horrific war with Iran that resulted in 1.5 million deaths, followed by two wars under American firepower separated by 13 years of crushing sanctions.

Equally interesting is the fact that the play was written by an American: actor Heather Raffo, a Michigan native whose father emigrated from Iraq and married a U.S. citizen. Both parents are Christian, and Raffo, according to a biography, was reared as a Roman Catholic.

Dozens of interviews framed play

The play, according to Raffo, was fashioned from interviews she conducted with dozens of women during a 10-year-plus period. She first performed it in Edinburgh in 2003 and it quickly moved to London, then to an off-Broadway American premiere in 2004. In the last few years, the play has been acclaimed, though widely debated. For example, John Lahr, the critic for the New Yorker, praised the play for its “particular thought-provoking wallop,” but also found in it a “chilling poetic prophecy about America’s destiny.”

Sass, a member of the Twin Cities theater scene for nearly two decades and currently associate artistic director at the Jungle Theater, said he was looking for a one-woman play to direct when he came across Raffo’s play. He said he instantly knew the woman he wanted to take the role — Eifrig, a seasoned local he had directed in a production of “Pericles” at the old Guthrie Lab.

“Fortunately, the Guthrie knew her and liked her, too,” Sass said, referring to Eifrig’s work in other Guthrie productions (“The Great Gatsby,” “His Girl Friday”).

Sass says he has directed a half-dozen one-person shows, including “The Syringa Tree” now at the Jungle, and likes the “collaborative” relationship that it requires between director and actor.

This is the first time Eifrig has tackled a one-woman show, however. “I’ve got nine characters running around in my head,” she said, laughing, during an interview last week.

Laughter, she added, is the remarkable thing about the play.

“It’s a mistake to think that a group of people who are suffering this incredibly depressing and difficult time are somehow without the drives and emotions that we all have,” she said. “They are sharing, talking and laughing. They can’t survive without it.”

Sass agreed.

“This play is much more complex, humorous and witty than what people might expect a show on this subject to be,” he said. “I think our imagined understanding of women of the Middle East is colored by our own fears, rather than how they actually see themselves. What we find in this piece, I hope, is the realization that the view of the world by these individual characters is more filled with mirth and hope and darkness than we can conveniently imagine from our sequestered vantage point as Westerners.”

What: “9 Parts of Desire” by Heather Raffo, performed by Kate Eifrig.
Where: Opens Wednesday in the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis.
When: March 5-March 23. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 1 p.m. March 22 and 23 (final performance).
Tickets: $18-$34
Phone: 612-377-2224

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