Most American-produced plays — even the good ones — are fluff when it comes to troubling contemporary issues. But Golden Thread‘s production of Motti Lerner’s Benedictus, which I caught opening night at Portrero Hill’s Thick House, is in an altogether together different class.
Why? Because it presents its two principal characters — Iran-born childhood friends, one Muslim, one Jewish, who meet at a Benedictine Monastery in Rome — in the round. No pat movie of the week answers are provided.
Instead we see two men — Ali Kermani (Al Faris), who’s almost a dead ringer for Khatami, in glasses, turban, flowing robes and prayer beads, and arms dealer Asher Muthada (Ali Pourtash), in a comfy summer suit — trying to come to terms with their their personal and political histories.
What does the past mean and how does it impinge on the present? Does religion have value, or is it merely a tool to oppress people? What is right action in a world gone to hell? And that hell is the supercharged and violently unstable relationship between Israel, America, and Iran, on the eve of a very real war on the people of this seven-millennia old culture.
Lerner’s script poses these questions with clarity, depth, and wit, and without the slightest hint of agitprop posturings. And that’s no mean thing in a culture, or rather cultures, dominated by images of good vs. evil, which force people into ill-fitting roles.
We’ve all ended up in places or jobs we didn’t bargain for, and Lerner’s play makes clear that Kermani and Muthada are like us in that way. And it’s smart enough to see that the decisions we make — be they for self, country, or politics — are at bottom never easy, and whether we like it or not, always fraught with ambiguity.
This is a thoroughly first class production powered by two intelligent, detailed, and affecting performances, with a wonderfully complementary one, by Earll Kingston, as US State Department politico (scary shades of James Baker) Ben Martin.
Straightforwardly directed by Mahmoud Karimi Hakak, with evocative set design by Daniel Michaelson, and sharp and atmospheric lighting by Jim Cave.
Mitchell Greenhill’s sound design, which used Zoe Keating’s cello with voices score, added further emotive layers, as music always should.
MICHAEL MCDONAGH, poet and writer on the arts
Playing through October 21 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco