Geneva Anderson digs into art

In Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the legendary Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, casts her fiery spell, contradictions and all

At Berkeley Rep, Concetta Tomei (Right) and Marjan Neshat (Left) star in the world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright.  Photo courtesy of

At Berkeley Rep, Concetta Tomei (Right) and Marjan Neshat (Left) star in the world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Photo courtesy of

It is rumored that when the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, learned that she had cancer, she didn’t ask the oncologist how much longer she had left to live, she asked, “How many books do I have left to write?”  And write she did, creating some of her most controversial work at the end of her life.  In the wake of 9/11, she argued violently and passionately in two best-selling books that our (Western) civilization and radical Islam are fundamentally incompatible and her book, The Rage and the Pride, drew accusations of inciting hatred against Muslims.  

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’sFallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is an intense and captivating look at Oriana Fallaci, “la Fallaci,”  the internationally acclaimed journalist, war correspondent, interviewer, and novelist who made her reputation in the 1970’s with a series of unforgettable interviews with autocratic figures in their homelands—the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Gaddafi, Castro, Kissinger.  This petite Italian dynamo said what she wanted to say and asked what she wanted to ask of the world’s most fascinating leaders.   She seemed capable of taking any political tiger by its tail and then kneeing it right in the crotch as she got her subjects to admit things publicly that later caused them much grief.  “Don’t you find,” she asked Henry Kissinger during Vietnam, “that it’s been a useless war?” “On this, I can agree,” said the then Secretary of State.  He later admitted that this interview was the “single most  disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”  By the time her cancer was diagnosed, Fallaci had literally done it all, everything her profession could offer.  For people like me, who became foreign correspondents, she was our end and be-all.   Wright’s play has been on my radar for over a year now and it did not disappoint in any way.

 In “Fallaci,” the tables are turned on Oriana Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei) as she is interviewed by a young Iranian-American New York Times journalist Maryam (played by Marjan Neshat).  The play is set in 1990’s, when Fallaci became increasingly reclusive and divided her time between her apartments in Manhattan and Florence.  What emerges is a captivating portrait of a strong, rough, grieving—and thoroughly glorious woman—who fights tooth and nail to have her truth her way, despite the facts.   The play stands on Wright’s marvelous script which provides an engaging commentary on the ethics of journalism as well as a made-to-order platform for Concetta Tomei to play Fallaci’s contradictions to the hilt. 

A distinctive and controversial feature of Fallaci’s writing, which has both fascinated and enraged journalists, is the way in which she blurs the interface between factual reportage and fiction.  Charlie Rose took her to task on this in a compelling live interview in December 7, 1992 that is, for lack of a better word,  magnetizing.  When he asks her about her editing, about her “painting the picture as she saw it,” about filtering through her “own imaginative process”…”not putting words in people’s mouths but choosing what words to include and more importantly, what context and what words to leave out”  she famously replied– “When you write an article, a reportage, you have to stay within the limits of what has happened, what has been said.  You must be very rigorous in reporting without inventing, without distorting, without manipulating.   But the better I was in being so rigorously faithful to events, the more I felt like writing with handcuffs.  You cannot move, you cannot open your arms you cannot say more–concepts for instance.  What literature does is it universalizes the truth and people can recognize it in that story.”  Wright cleverly explores this through Maryam’s successive interviews with Fallaci in which Fallaci is shown to have given dramatically different versions of the truth at various points in time, defending them all as fact. 

You wouldn’t necessarily recognize Concetta Tomei even if you’d seen her in her recent stand-out performance as Valerie in A.C.T.’s world premiere of Cary Perloff’s Higher at the Children’s Creativity Museum in February 2012.  There, she played a wealthy widow who was cunning, strong, very manipulative and funny and, like Fallaci, a part of her was very remote and lonely.  At Berkeley Rep, she literally sores as Fallaci and is utterly and convincingly Italian.  She plays Fallaci as a diva, one who needs to be coaxed by someone worthy into spilling her fascinating stories and accumulated wisdom and regrets. 

Oriana Fallaci is the subject of Lawrence Wright's new play "Fallaci," which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Oriana Fallaci is the subject of Lawrence Wright’s new play “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Wright also steeps us in Fallaci’s intrepid interview style by having Fallaci dramatically relive some of her most glorious moments with Maryam.   Perhaps her most famous interview was with Kohmeini, in 1979, when, after waiting for 10 days in Qum (Iran) for him to agree, she donned a chador and questioned him relentlessly about the treatment of women in his new Islamic state.  “How do you swim in a chador?” to which he replied–“If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it…” at which point she yanked off her chador and said “I am going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”  When she returned the next day to conclude the interview, he smiled and laughed and Khomeini’s son told Fallaci “I think you are the only person in the world who made him laugh.”

Marjan Neshat, who played Nawal Marwan in A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, last February, is New York Times journalist Maryam and, again, she is embroiled in a difficult situation.  She initially visits Fallaci as a naïve obituary writer, there to extract information from Fallaci before she is felled by her rumored cancer.  Initially, Fallaci seems guarded, weakened and tired but, instinctively, she knows when to assert herself to maintain the upper hand.  As she leaps to her feet to defend a point or shouts over Maryam to make herself  heard, we get why there is only one Fallaci.  Maryam proves very quick on the uptake though and manages to impress this war horse.  Maryam returns three years later, post 9/11, to find Fallaci still very much alive.  They discuss Fallaci’s controversial The Rage and the Pride in which the author broke her ten year silence to produce a scathing indictment of Islam. Throughout the course of play, Maryam’s character transitions dramatically.  She ultimately becomes a controversial and highly-respected journalist known for her reportage on contemporary Iran. She also attains the savvy and confidence to go head-to-head with Fallaci.  By the time the ladies have their last meeting, they are more or less equals, supportive and tender with each other.

 After experiencing Fallaci, I went home and pulled out my tattered edition of her magnificent Interview with History I can well understand Wright’s enduring fascination with Fallaci.   Her questions, more authoritative statements than questions, prompted some of the most compelling discussions on record. 

 Fallaci is completely absorbing and I am going again.

 Fallaci runs 90 minutes without intermission.

Details:  Fallaci  runs through April 21, 2013.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with additional weekend matinee performances. Tickets: $29 -$89.  Call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From stage to screen, once you’ve seen “Incendies,” the film, A.C.T.’s staged version, “Scorched,” falls Flat

Twin siblings Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) attend the reading of their estranged mother's will, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of my best friends is a librarian and I often hear about how a book is almost always much better, richer, than a movie adaptation.  When a play is adapted into a movie, as is common these days, the play isn’t always better.   A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, which opened on February 22, 2012, is infinitely less moving than French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, the film adaptation.  The gut-wrenching drama coheres and resonates profoundly on screen, while A.C.T.’s stage version, directed by Carey Perloff, fails to mine the intense and shifting emotions at the heart of this haunting story.  A.C.T.’s production suffers from poor casting, lackluster acting and other confusions, some of which might be worked through in subsequent performances. Thematically, the material is golden, a Greek tragedy for our time: you can’t choose your family and, try as you may, you can’t escape family either.

In Scorched, we meet twenty-something twins Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon Marwan (Babak Tafti) in present-day Montreal, as they are being read the will of their late mother by notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn ) who was also her employer near the time of her death and friend.  He hands them letters addressed to a father they were told was dead and a brother they didn’t know existed, letters that their mother stipulated must be delivered before she can be given a proper burial. “Childhood is like a knife stuck in the throat that cannot be easily removed,” the notary says.

And so begins the unraveling of our assumptions about what we think we know about childhood, happiness, and the security of a family’s love.  As the twins gradually discover the tortured history of their mother and of their own origins, that bizarre adage starts to resonate.  Childhood isn’t simply being young; it’s also the experience of being someone’s child.  For Janine and Simon, being the children of Nawal Marwan has been painful and her death is equally complex, leaving them with a world of questions.  They’re sent off on an epic quest — first Jeanne, and later a far more reluctant Simon — to their mother’s homeland.  The balance of the story unfolds in this barren and unnamed Middle Eastern land which has a history of Christan-Muslim violence much like that of Mouawad’s homeland, Lebanon, in the 1970s.

In fulfillment of her estranged mother's final wishes, Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) a jacket with the mysterious number 72 embroidered on the back, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The story itself is a rich melding of drama, mystery, and war-time epic.   As the twins slowly unearth how perversely their family history is tied to the region’s conflicts and violence, the narrative alternates between their present day investigation and their mother’s journeys and trials decades earlier.

Featured actor David Strathairn, as Alphonse Lebel, the notary entrusted with settling Nawal Marwan’s estate with the twins, gives such an affecting performance that he steals the dramatic thunder from Nawal Marwan’s tragic story and the twins’ evolving perspectives. The Emmy-award winning Strathairn, who rambles, spouts malapropisms right and left, and tries out several accents, comes off  much like  detective Monk, the endearing comedic TV detective played by Tony Shalhoub.  Is he meant to evoke a holy fool who guides the twins to the truth?   Who knows—but the alchemy feels very off given the weak performances of the other major characters and the serious emotional tenor of the play.  

It is really the women who should be the dramatic focus.  Nawal’s story at its core, despite its almost unbelievable twists, is representative of the universal struggle of women in war torn, repressive and male-dominated societies everywhere.  The early love scenes between Marjan Neshat, Nawal from ages 14 through 40, and Nick Gabriel as her lover Wahab (a Muslim refugee), which should really hook us, are devoid of passion.  As we see Nawal mature, we understand through dialogue, not her acting, how at odds she is with the perverse context into which she’s been inserted.  Jacqueline Antaramian gives a very affecting performance as Nawal at 60 and earlier in the play as Nawal’s mother.

L to R: Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives a mysterious notebook and letter to Simon (Babak Tafti) in fulfillment of Simon's estranged mother's final wishes in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Challenging in its own right, play is further confused by A.C.T.’s casting choices—there are several actors who are playing many characters and a couple of characters that are being played by more than one actor and a couple of the characters were played by actors of the opposite gender.  On top of that, some of the characters weren’t able to pull off consistent accents, particularly Omozé Idenhenre as Sawda, Nawal’s companion, who, on opening night, seemed to lapse in and out of various affectations.   In the Word on Plays that accompanies this production, dramaturg Beatrice Basso interviews the translator, Linda Gboriau, who talks about trying to subliminally clue the audience that some of the characters—notary and twins–are from Montreal and go to the Middle East where French is spoken but the audience hears them in English. At other times, when the drama is in the past, in the Middle East, other things were required linguistically. Of the many nuances Gboriau aspired to, few were polished by opening night resulting in a real mish-mash.

Of the twins, Babak Tafti, as Simon, does a great job of portraying his character’s inner emotions.  At first, Simon is dismissive and embittered by the sting of his mother’s abandonment but later, as the facts unfold, he works through the stages of anger, to what we sense is evolving compassion and deep confusion.  One of the highlights of Annie Purcell’s fairly flat performance as Janine is her fascinating digression into graph theory.  Janine’s an emotionally-stilted Ph.D. candidate in theoretical math and presents a riveting analysis of how the perspective she once had of her position in the family has shifted with the new information revealed in her mother’s will.  Her comfort zone—a vertice point on a polygon with a known number of visible connections—has shifted and she now has more connections to contend with and doesn’t know how to move forward.  It is evident that the very scars that Janine’s mother inherited from her mother’s abandonment have marred Janine as well.

L to R: A militiaman (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) apprehends Nawal (Marjan Neshat, left) and her friend Sawda (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) when he suspects them of being notorious revolutionaries, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Truly, the psychic work of all our lives is to heal the wounds inflicted upon us by our parents.  In Scorched, we leave wondering if Nawal’s final decision, to lead her children on a journey toward the devastating truth, is too much for them to bear.  If you do see this play, go later in its run.  And be sure to catch the film, which was Canada’s official Oscar entrant and can be streamed on NetFlix.  The film touched a deep but smoldering place deep inside of me and had me thinking for days about my own origins and the emotional legacy I inherited from both my adoptive and birth parents, whereas the play came and went.   

Who is Nawal Marwan, the Woman Who Sings? In 2000, playwright Wajdi Mouawad learned the story of Soha Bechara, a Lebanese Christian with pro-Muslim sympathies, had attempted to assassinate the commander of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army during the Lebanese Civil War and was subsequently incarcerated in the notorious Khiam prison for a decade. She was sentenced to solitary confinement in a cell adjacent to the room where inmates were tortured. “For ten years,” Mouawad told CBS News, “she heard the crying and pain of the tortured. To try not to become mad, she began to sing. She sang the songs she knew—popular songs. The people in the jail who heard this woman but never saw her, called her The Woman who Sings. She gave them hope and courage to survive.” Bechara became Mouawad’s inspiration for Nawal, the mother whose history is uncovered by her children in Incendies. (Words on Plays, p. 6)

Details: Scorched performs a limited run February 16–March 11, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment