The Naked Now

'9 Parts of Desire' is a work that reminds audiences how powerful an intelligent performer can be

by Tom Avila
Published on October 12, 2006, 12:00am | Comments

''I am good at being naked.''

In the nonstop cascade of language that makes up Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, this single line forms the backbone of an impressive evening of theater. Raffo is very good at being naked -- emotionally naked.

9 Parts of Desire is a raw, one-woman show that gives voice to the conflicting emotions so many have about the war in Iraq. Told through the stories of nine different female characters -- eight Iraqis and one American woman of Iraqi descent living in post-9/11 New York -- Raffo has crafted a work that reminds audiences how powerful an intelligent performer can be.

But while Raffo and her women command the stage, there is an ensemble at work here. The crew and designers deserve their own round of ovations, particularly set designer Antje Ellermann.


One woman, many voices: Raffo
(Photo by Scott Suchman)

The performance of 9 Parts truly begins when the audience first spies the stage. Ellermann, who has designed sets for the show at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, the Geffen Playhouse, Berkeley Repertory and the Seattle Repertory, has wedged the crumbling shell of a once-proud home into the front of the Kreeger Theater. Frayed concrete, broken-but-luminous tile, skeletal pipe and a strangely opulent curtain of plastic sheeting have such impressive weight that they feel more like architectural relics than a theatrical fašade.

Hanging like a spider from a dangerously slender cord in the upper reaches of the house is a single glowing chandelier. Amidst the rubble and stacks of sandbags this is an unlikely source of light illuminating the estate of a Middle Eastern Miss Havisham.

Far from delicate, the women Raffo conjures are themselves unlikely sources of light illuminating the murky chaos of the war in Iraq. Among them is an artist who cannot imagine being able to create work outside of Iraq, a weary intellectual who can tick off conflicts like rosary beads, a young girl forbidden by her mother to leave the house, a lovesick Bedouin, and an American who cannot bring herself to leave the television for fear she will miss seeing the faces of her Iraqi relatives. Raffo has created the pantheon of a contemporary mythology; a collection of distinct individuals each with her own thoughts and ideas. These characters are soloists, not a chorus.

Raffo has gathered this group together because the actor does not pretend that there is a single response to the war. She is successful because, while 9 Parts is unquestionably political, one would be hard pressed to say it is partisan. There is neither a single hero nor a common enemy. America is oppressor and liberator. Saddam is both a tyrant and a mourned, lost leader.

9 Parts of Desire
To Nov. 12
Arena Stage
$47-$66
202-488-3300

Raffo is humble enough as an artist to embrace the many threads of this conflict and wise and skilled enough to communicate complexity, not confusion. Raffo demonstrates a respect for her audiences. There is a faith in their ability to fully invest in her project, to carry the heat of this dialogue back out into the world as they seek to find their own answers.

The one-person show is a dangerous entity, particularly when it is conceived, written and performed by the same person. It calls on the performer to walk the line between theater and public narcissism. For the most part, Raffo's sensitivity to this difficult boundary is admirable. It is only toward the end of the show that she treads into dangerous territory. Smart writing is overshadowed by loud, though less convincing emotional outbursts. When viewed alongside the rest of the evening, these read as somewhat self-indulgent and largely empty.

Those final moments of 9 Parts of Desire notwithstanding, Heather Raffo has created an important and compelling work of theater. She brings us the human voices that sometimes get lost in the din of rhetoric and political posturing. She has managed to strip the war in Iraq naked to stunning effect.