BWW Review: NASSIM at Magic Theatre Utilizes an Unorthodox Structure to Find What Connects Us
Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's eponymous play "Nassim" currently enjoying an all-too-brief run at the Magic Theatre adheres to an unorthodox format. Its sole actor, a different one at each show, does not see the script until it is unsealed onstage at the beginning of the actual performance. That actor can be of any gender, age or race. For the record, it was a very game Sean San Jose the night I attended. Soleimanpour himself is also on hand as a sort of enigmatic, mute guide and companion. Given that the actor knows virtually nothing about the play ahead of time, it would seem churlish of me as a theater critic to spill the beans in this review. Having now seen the play myself, I can also attest that the less you know about it going in, the richer your experience is likely to be.
So - What can I tell you about the play itself? It's very, very funny, yet also suffused with a deep sense of longing. It's about many things - displacement, friendship, the mysterious beauty of language, global connection, otherness and enduring familial bonds. All are handled in a way that is paradoxically oblique and direct. You never know what's going to happen next, but the play is never, ever confusing to experience. In the end, the play was for me more than anything about trust, something that is in perilously short supply these days. Audience members must trust that this unrehearsed play will be worth their time, money and attention. The actor must trust that they'll be up to the task and that the audience will cut them some slack when they inevitably mess up at certain points. The playwright must trust that his work will translate to the specific culture of the people right there in the room with him.
The set is beyond minimal, consisting of just a folding table and chair, a cardboard box, a video screen, a microphone on a stand, and a red "X" on the floor. And yet, as the show unfolds, it also incorporates technology in surprising ways involving stop-motion animation and global telecommunication. This is the only overt indication that the play in fact does have a director, Omar Elerian, who guides the performance with a deft and light touch. A moment that feels completely ad hoc will somehow morph into another moment that clearly was very carefully directed, and yet you can't tell when or how that shift occurred.
There is a definite method to Soleimanpour's madness. He's not just messing with theatrical convention to show how clever he can be. His unique approach allows us all - actor, audience and playwright - to have a shared experience, in the moment, that can never again be repeated in the same way. Yes, I know theater folk love to talk about how each performance is unique, but in the case of "Nassim" that is literally true. It results in an experience unlike any I've had before.
Apologies if I've made the play sound like some impenetrable, artsy-fartsy performance piece, because it's really not. In fact, it's ultimately the sweetest, most human play I've seen in a long time. It challenges us to stay connected to our world and is hopeful about that possibility. Especially during this week of impeachment hearings when so many of us are questioning our ability to co-exist with one another, it's a balm for the soul. You'll just have to trust me on that.
"Nassim" runs through Saturday, November 16th at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Bldg. D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. Tickets and further information available at www.MagicTheatre.org or by calling (415) 441-8822.