First American stage adaptation of Rumi's "Mathnavi"
First American stage adaptation of Rumi's "Mathnavi," the
epic work of Sufi Mysticism" September 28 to October 15 La MaMa directing
debut for formative Persian emigre theater artist Mahmood Karimi-Hakak.
September 28 to October 15 La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East
Fourth Street Presented by La MaMa E.T.C., Mahak and Open Theatre, DC Th-Sat
at 8 PM, Sun at 3:30 PM and 8 PM; Fri & Sat $20/tdf; Th & Sun $15/tdf
Box Office (212) 475-7710
NEW YORK, September 1 - "Rumi's Mathnavi" is an imagistic
theater piece based on selected stories from the greatest epic poem of
The piece, directed by Iranian stage director/film maker Mahmood Karimi-Hakak,
might never have come to our shores had Karimi-Hakak been more welcome
in post-revolutionary Iran.
Mahmood Karimi-Hakak was head of Mahak, a theater troupe in Tehran that
was formed in 1992 "by students learning things the Revolution didn't
By 1993 it began petitioning the official censors of the Khomeni regime
(and its successors) to put on productions in Tehran theaters. Of 125 such
petitions, 124 were denied until 1999, when Karimi-Hakak went public about
the troupe's suppression and it came to the attention of the moderate government
of now-president Khatami.
The Mahak troupe was contracted to perform its "A Midsummer Night's
Dream," translated and directed by Karimi-Hakak, for 45 performances
in an abandoned theater, which they were allowed to clean up.
This space, intended for an audience of 340, drew crowds of 800 to each
of 4 performances before it was raided by Revolutionary Guards. Karimi-Hakak
was prosecuted for translating, designing and directing the play.
He was not imprisoned, but was advised to leave the country. Karimi-Hakak's
own account of the events is on-line at: //www.nytheatre-wire.com/mahak.htm.
Karimi-Hakak returned to the United States, where he had originally sought
refuge from the tumult of the Shah's last days and lived from 1977 to 1992.
During that time he taught at Towson University in Maryland; University
of Antwerp and CCNY. (Today, he teaches at CUNY and BMCC.)
During his first sojourn in the US, Karimi-Hakak conducted workshops
at La MaMa in the 1980s, where he also designed "Malcolm's Time"
for director David Willinger. In 1986, he acted the title role in Promethius"
by Richard Schechner's Performance Group.
His directing work is innovative and avant-garde, but without the abrasiveness
and sexually confrontational themes of his fellow Persian emigres, Reza
Abdoh and Assurbanipal Babilla, whose work was widely seen in New York
while Karimi-Hakak was trying to make a go of it in Tehran. Karimi-Hakak's
theater work has primarily aimed at taking ancient myths and making them
accessible to modern audiences.
He has directed 32 other plays, 14 of which were inspired or adapted
from Iranian short stories or myths. He staged the first US production
of the Iranian passion play, "Ta'zie," in 1979 and was the first
theater artist to adapt the epic "Gilgamesh," for the stage.
Karimi-Hakak was a student of the brilliant, charismatic Polish avant-garde
director Jerzy Grotowski, whose influence pervades his work.
The source of this play, "Masnavi-ye Manavi" (Spiritual Couplets),
was written in the mid-13th century by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi. It is
a six-volume poem considered one of the world's greatest troves of parables
and spiritual wisdom and speaks to people of all tongues, of all religions,
believers and non-believers.
Many Sufis (Islamic mystics) regard it as second in importance only
to the Koran. Its imagery runs the gamut from ecstatic to volcanic, from
chilling to rambunctious. Rumi was also the author of love lyrics that
surpass in beauty even the tales in his "Mathnavi."
Bookstore surveys in the mid-'90s counted him as the best-selling poet
in North America, mostly by way of his lyrical poetry. In 1244, Rumi accepted
the friendship and religious guidance of Shams al-Din, a dervish (devotee
of Sufism) from Tabriz, Iran.
Rumi hoped to devote his life to creating poetry expressing his feelings
for his spiritual master. Shams al-Din disappeared unexplainedly in 1247
and over the years Rumi composed nearly 30,000 verses expressing his feelings
at this loss.
For centuries Rumi's importance in the Middle East, Central Asia and
the Indian Subcontinent has been on par with that of Shakespeare. His poetry
is recited and performed to music around the world.
However his masterpiece, "The Mathnavi"-a fantastically structured
six volumes of parables, spiritual insights and satire-has been something
that Western theater audiences have yet to experience.
This play draws on only eight stories selected from Rumi's great "Mathnavi."
(To do the entire epic poem would, in Karimi-Hakak's words, require "about
The cast of nine envision themselves as disciples of Rumi, who is reflected
in the piece by a single woman character. She starts out as part of the
ensemble and becomes progressively more enlightened. The piece, through
this "through line," suggests the transformation of someone who
learns from a teacher, reflecting the passage of the ego into the higher
This imagery of this production is stylistic, gestural movement which
aims at the experience of "seeing" Rumi's poetry. Karimi-Hakak
explains, "Everything is made with the bodies of the actors."
Rumi's words are spoken in Japanese, Turkish, French, Spanish, Persian
and English. The production uses differing languages, music and the actors'
bodies so that the audience can simply watch and let go of the intellect.
This, says Karimi-Hakak, fulfills the essence of Runi, who preached
that intellect should be put away and the heart put in its place, saying
"Intellectuals are always showing themselves off while lovers always
dissolve (like sugar in a sherbet) and are bewildered."
The piece has been developed in conjunction with Center for International
Theatre Exchange in Washington, DC. It was written by Mahmood Karimi-Hakak
and Joe Martin, Artistic Director of Open Theatre/DC.
Martin is a recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation grant in Playwriting
from the U.S. Mexico Fund for Culture, a Fullbright in theatre and the
Source Theatre Literary Prize in Washington, DC. Martin's collaboration
with Karimi-Hakak on the script began in 1995. The performers are Nikki
Bell , Zeynep Bilik, Rob Laqui, Carlos Linares, Tareke Ortiz, Tania Ritter,
Shigeko Suga, Kayo Takahashi, Brandon Welch and Christel Stevens.
Shigeko Suga and Tareke Ortiz are members of La MaMa's Great Jones Repertory;
both have appeared in "Fragments of a Greek Trilogy," directed
by Andrei Serban and composed by Elizabeth Swados.
Vocalists are Mehdi Meigani and Manya Meigani. Musicians are Tom Chess,
Ezekiel Healy and Neel Margar. Lighting design is by Ji Youn Chang.