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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 Islamic Mysticism.

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 teach them."

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: // 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 five Mahabaratas.")

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 self.

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.


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