BWW REVIEW: Cast, Direction Keep KITE RUNNER Aloft
THE KITE RUNNER
Adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by Khaled Hosseini; directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; violence director, Robert Najarian; scenic designer, Paul Tate dePoo III; costume designer, Adrienne Carlile; lighting designer, Mary Ellen Stebbins; sound designer, David Reiffel; composer, musical director, Ryan Edwards; properties designer, Lauren L. Duffy; dialect coach, Christine Hamel
Cast in alphabetical order:
Ken Baltin, Baba and others; Paige Clark, Soraya and others; Scott Fortier, Rahim Khan and others; Fahim Hamid, Young Amir, ensemble; Ahmad Maksoud, Kamal and others; Johnnie McQuarley, Ali and others; Luke Murtha, Hassan and others; Nael Nacer, Amir; Robert Najarian, Wali and others; Dale Place, General Taheri and others; FrEd Williams, Musician, ensemble; John Zdrojeski, Assef and others
Performances and Tickets:
Now through October 7, New Repertory Theatre, Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, Mass.; tickets $28-$58 available by calling the Box Office at 617-923-8487 or online at www.newrep.org.
For those worried that they may miss important references in the stage adaptation of The Kite Runner (at New Rep in Watertown through October 7) if they haven't read Khaled Hosseini's very popular 2003 book, fear not. Matthew Spangler's sprawling narrative drama, Elaine Vaan Hogue's animated and inventive direction, and uniformly potent performances from the entire cast create a visually and emotionally rich piece of theater that flies quite smoothly on its own.
Spanning 30 years, from Afghanistan in the 1970s to San Francisco and back again, The Kite Runner follows the very different paths taken by childhood friends Amir (Nael Nacer), a Pashtun Sunni Muslim born to wealth and privilege in pre-revolutionary Kabul, and Hassan (Luke Murtha), a Hazara Shia Muslim whose father is a servant to Amir's. As youngsters, Amir and Hassan are inseparable, acting out scenes from John Wayne movies and teaming up to win their city's much celebrated annual kite-fighting competition. However, after witnessing, but running away from, a brutal attack on Hassan by a band of local thugs, Amir turns on Hassan, twisting his own guilt and self-loathing into unwarranted accusations and hatred. When Amir and his father, Baba (Ken Baltin), escape to America just before the overthrow of the monarchy, Amir's guilt follows him. It's not until years later, just after 9/11, when he is called back to Afghanistan by an old family friend, that he takes responsibility for his past and seeks redemption.
The politics and culture of Afghanistan are ever present in The Kite Runner, but they serve only as backdrops to Amir's more universal story. In fact, if it weren't for Paul Tate dePoo III's heat-seared set of stone walls and earthen floors, and the foreboding Middle Eastern drumming of hovering minstrel FrEd Williams, the early action could just as easily be taking place in a private American schoolyard. There's nothing particularly unique about a group of rich bullies tormenting a poor young outsider while another more cowardly member of their social class does nothing to intervene. What elevates The Kite Runner above any ordinary Lifetime Television drama, however, is the staging – and a host of elegantly simple performances at its center.
Since The Kite Runner is fashioned as an autobiographical purging of past sins by writer Amir, Nael Nacer has the unenviable task of narrating the entire story. He describes action, provides background, and confesses his own role in affecting the twists and turns of the harrowing, yet somehow predictable, plotline. However, Spangler and Vaan Hogue give Nacer enough opportunities to step into the drama so that the playing never becomes static. Vaan Hogue also creates a sense of self scrutiny for Amir by having his younger and older selves alternate between shadowing and observing each other.
When Nacer watches the young Amir (Fahim Hamid) interact with Hassan during more innocent times, a warm fondness creeps over his face. When the young Amir's cowardice takes over, Nacer sits in contemptuous judgment of himself. When the tables are turned and the young Amir watches his older self, Hamid seems almost ready to jump in and prevent Nacer from making the same mistakes over and over again. These two gifted actors carry out Amir's psychological pas de deux with himself with great physical energy and ease. They seamlessly connect the past with the present, keeping the storytelling dynamic and enthralling.
As the saintly young Hassan, who in a Muslim world somehow seems to epitomize the Christian ethics of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, Murtha says much while saying very little. With an unforced smile and relaxed, erect pose, he conveys a gentle but knowing acceptance of his servitude, wearing it as a badge of honor rather than carrying it as a burden. The pain that his character dutifully bears does lurk silently in his penetrating eyes, but not one ounce of resentment creeps into his performance. It is Murtha's profound and eloquent silences that give The Kite Runner its greatest emotional lift.
Ken Baltin is spirited and proud as the well-meaning but stolid widowed father who showers more praise on his servant's capable kite-running son than he does on his own introverted one. Scott Fortier as the family friend Rahim Khan is suitably warm and wise, understanding and appreciating Amir in ways his father does not. Paige Clark as Soraya is an amiable and forthright wife for Amir – a modern Afghani émigré who, once accustomed to freewheeling American ways, stands up to her father (Dale Place) in ways that Amir cannot to his.
As Assef, the sociopathic young ringleader of the gang that terrorizes Amir and ultimately brutalizes Hassan, John Zdrojeski, a recent BostonUniversity grad, is positively riveting. Baring his teeth in a cold, sadistic smile, Zdrojeski charms the elders of the community at private upper class parties while wreaking unspeakable violence on their children in the streets. Assef is a premonition of the horror that is to come in Afghanistan. Once the Taliban rises to power in the 1990s, it is no surprise that he is one of the movement's fiercest members.
Although The Kite Runner is more soap opera than political drama, its language is poetic and its message of redemption and hope is tender and inspirational. If a bit episodic and ultimately conventional in its resolution, its storytelling – especially as staged by the New Rep in Watertown – is both graceful and heartfelt.
PHOTOS BY ANDREW BRILLIANT: Luke Murtha as Hassan (center) with Nael Nacer as Amir (up center left) and the ensemble of The Kite Runner; Luke Murtha (rear) and company; Ken Baltin as Baba, Nael Nacer and Fahim Hamid as Young Amir; Ken Baltin (right) with the company of The Kite Runner