By AUDREY WELLS
"What are you creating with your freedom?" This provocative question directed at the audience of "9 Parts of Desire," an Illinois Theatre production now in performance at Krannert Center for Performing Arts, comes from one of nine characters, each a woman from Iraq, who directly addresses her American audience in monologue form as if they were trusted friends.
The playwright and director, Heather Raffo, can answer this question. Raffo, whose father is Iraqi, created this theater piece to enhance American understanding of our relationship to Iraq. The characters are based on real women she encountered traveling and visiting family there. Originally performed as a one-woman show by Raffo, in this production, six earnest and able University of Illinois acting students are cast in the various roles.
The interesting set design by Yeaji Kim tries to accommodate the goal of personal connection. The audience sits on four sides of the stage peering into the actors' territory, seeing everything. The space suggests an exterior as it is built with rock and has a riverbed winding through the middle. However, the stage also suggests an interior, a shelter, but the roof has been bombed. Water drips down. That we are placed in the context of war is obvious.
The actors look openly at, talk directly to and sometimes physically interact with audience members. This intimacy makes its point well. More of this connection might have strengthened the production's effect. If the goal is familiarity, why not have the actors come right into the audience? Or bring the audience in closer.
The varied experiences shared by the women create a mosaic, as Dramaturg Rachel E. Bennett puts it, providing a rich, memorable blend of stories. The set, costumes and wonderfully designed sound by Mark McClain Wilson, transport us to Iraq, yet often in the women's stories we find something to relate to that feels like home. One character frets over being fat. We hear about love affairs, divorces and children.
We also hear about atrocities, politics and American intervention. There are stories of children making jewelry of bullets. A doctor witnesses genetic deformities in newborns, likely caused by depleted uranium. How often do we hear true details of Iraqi women's lives? How often do we hear their opinions?
"9 Parts of Desire" requires passionate intensity, and the actors deliver. They identify with their characters and clearly benefited from being directed by Raffo. Tanisha Lynn Pyron held me spellbound. Martasia Jones kept me thinking.
The structure of the production made for a few false endings, and the challenging play is not easy, but I am better for having seen it and applaud all the talented people involved.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.
If you go
What: The University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "9 Parts of Desire," written and directed by playwright-actress Heather Raffo, starring six UI students.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9-12; 3 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $18 for adults; $17 for senior citizens; $15 for students; $10 for UI students and youths
Information: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com
Note: The play has strong adult content and is recommended for mature audiences only.