The Presentation House season opens with a show from Halifax’s Neptune Theatre that is of special interest for the North Shore’s large Iranian-Canadian community. Shahin Sayadi’s The Veil is an adaptation of the novel Khanoom by Masoud Behnoud, a sweeping fictionalized biography of a Persian princess who participates in many of the major political events and social changes that shaped 20th century Iran.
Sayadi’s adaptation and his Onelight Theatre production provide some fascinating perspectives for a non-Iranian audience as well, although there’s quite a bit of dead air for those of us not so heavily invested in the history being dramatized.
Valerie Buhagiar plays an older Khanoom, who narrates her life story to her granddaughter (Nadiya Chettair), who acts it out as Khanoom’s younger self while the two are under siege in Tehran during the revolution that overthrew the Shah. Khanoom was a princess, the daughter of an earlier Shah, and her story takes her farther and farther from the centres of power. She experiences oppression at the hands of her father, her despotic brother, and a gay Turkish husband as well as the Nazis and the Free French (all the male roles are played by Ari Millen and Martin Burt). She lives through both world wars and the Russian Revolution as well as various Iranian political crises. Through her mother (Sarah Kitz) and radical sister (an excellent Genevieve Steele) she sees a range of choices available to her as a woman, but ultimately she is acted upon much more than she acts.
Chettair’s young Khanoom is a charming lens through which we watch Iranian (and world) history unfold but Buhagiar is way too big and too loud as her older self.
I found the staging more compelling than the history under Sayadi’s direction. The main set piece is a wall of white cloth strips on which a series of vivid projections establishes the changing locations. Between scenes the actors formally rearrange the strips to create a variety of interesting structures and surfaces. The combination of Western and Persian music is also extremely effective. No one is credited in the program for the set design, projections, or music, so I assume all are Sayadi’s choices.
The Veil (a curious metaphor since, in the play, Khanoom is never veiled) introduces Canadian audiences to a world of which most of us know little but of which current events urgently suggest we need to know much more.