Iranian Afsaneh Aayani is a prodigiously talented scenographer from Houston, known for her poetic and colorful graphic sense. She graced the stages of Classical Theater, Main Street, Stages, AD Players, Houston Equity Festival, University of Houston and Catastrophic with a searing wit and deep intelligence.
Watch his biased sci-fi cabinet of Dr. Caligari for RUR; the arches of the church lined with neon lights to The Book of Magdalenethe sweet and aromatic Americana inherent in Christmas shoesthe dystopian future of graffiti-filled rubbish in dog lawthe sleek and minimalist black and white interior of 4:48 Psychosisthe world of pop comics for Black Super Hero Magic Mamaor the cold and antiseptic aspect of cloning in The effect. Each of his creations exudes vision, coherence and total mastery of the sense of the piece. He is a master who performs visual miracles on stage.
As a novice playwright, what Aayani still needs to master is play construction, pacing, and perhaps the most overriding rule of theatre: don’t bore us.
Extremely heartfelt and immensely personal, the world premiere story she tells in her hour-long mixed media Anonymous, presented by Catastrophic Theatre, is so close to her, so near and dear in the narrative, that she loses all perspective. It is his story after all. In her arduous journey from Iran to America, she gives us bullet points instead of drama.
She leaves war-torn native Iran after her baby, we assume, is killed in an air raid. Images of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece ‘Guernica’ flash across many television screens used as backdrops, as the set’s seven dancers mimic Picasso’s raised hands of innocent civilians beneath the shock of grief. James Templeton’s video design is ubiquitous and generally more interesting than what lies ahead.
I should mention that everyone except our heroine, the girl (Natalie Nassar), is represented by one-eyed, bloodshot, hijab-wearing creatures. Faceless and impersonal, they are true avatars of the title. A rarely used word, “innomme” means “anonymous”. However, these dancing cyclops unwittingly invoke comedy, like a dancing line from 60s CBS commercials. Remember CBS’ eye logo? That’s all I could think of, other than an episode of blurred area. It’s not a good look or a good idea.
The girl kisses her friends and parents goodbye. As a paranoid whispered aside, he is told not to come back until the “regime has changed”. She flies to the United States where she undergoes an arduous immigration process, while the Cyclops imitate the bureaucrats who stamp her and move her impersonally through the long queues, ordering: “Middle Easterners must follow this path!”
Adam Castañeda’s choreography is in situ, gyratory and sinuous, but little more than illustrative. Its dancers (Ashley Boykin, Lauren Burke, Hannah Dunning, Cynthia Garcia, Stormie Holmes, Karina Pal Montano-Bowers, Chad “Lyric” Williams), even under mono eyes, form an uneven group, not as sharp as they should be. . Williams performs a poignant, if overlong, duet with Nassar in remembrance of her late brother who died in Iran due to COVID, but the dance numbers, however many, are basically an annoyance and consume valuable stage time. .
The Girl’s citizenship applications are repeatedly denied or postponed; she’s fighting through COVID; and in the end never becomes a citizen. So much for his story. The play ends as it begins. Followed by musician Hessam Dianpour, whose original music is a highlight, she sings an Iranian version of “Greensleeves” (?) as she walks barefoot from the theater – a woman without a country.
That’s it, do you think? That’s all there is? Where is the depth, the subtext, something meaningful that we should know about her? Is surface representation all this production has? If it’s a game by osmosis, we haven’t absorbed anything.
Do you know what I left with? Aayani’s fabulous design sense that perfectly matched the girl’s blood red duvet, her sheets, the pillow with her dress. It’s the sign of a pro.
Innominate continues through June 19 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at the Catastrophic Theater at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Mandatory masks. Pay what you can.