Monday, May 29, 2017

15 (2017-2018): Review: THE BOY WHO DANCED ON AIR (seen May 28, 2017)

"Dancing at Af-gay-nistan"

It’s probably safe to say that most Americans consider Afghanistan among the world’s most socially repressive countries. If so, they’d probably be surprised to learn that, while this 99% Muslim country frowns sharply on typical homosexual activities, Afghanistan actually has a tradition of kidnapping or purchasing good-looking young boys from poor families to serve the needs, sexual and otherwise, of well-to-do older men.

Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri. Photo: Maria Baranova.
If you saw the film version of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner you may recall its inclusion of this pedophiliac tradition as represented by the illegal Northern Afghanistan practice of bacha bazi (“boy play”).  Here, the boys are trained to dance in female garb for the pleasure of their otherwise sexually restricted master and his friends, and even engage in competitions. Afghan women, whose raison d'etre is to raise families, could never provide similar services.
Troy Iwaga. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Bacha bazi is the foundation of an unusual, if flawed, new Off-Broadway musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air, itself inspired by PBS’s 2010 Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. For the show, which premiered last year at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, composer Tim Rosser and book/lyric writer Charlie Sohne—who won the 2017 Jonathan Larson and Mary Rogers/Lorenz Hart awardshave imagined a situation in which a man named Jandahar (Jonathan Raviv) purchases a teenage boy, Paiman (Troy Iwata).
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Jandahar—whom we assume is married although it’s never clearly stated—trains him to dance, uses him as a sexual companion, and, eventually, when Paiman begins sprouting facial hair, is forced by “tradition” to replace him with a new boy. His decision to marry Paiman off is actually a kindness in a system that normally sees the boys discarded to survive on their own. Jandahar firmly believes his behavior is morally appropriate. As he explains to Paiman in almost laughably ironic terms:

But, Paiman, men have needs.  That’s why we have dancing boys—boys who we train to dance but also to bring into our homes and tend to our desires. It’s what allows us to maintain moral relationships with women.  It is a sacred role, one that’s now yours to fulfill.

Paiman becomes friends with another dancing boy, the slightly older Feda (Nikhil Saboo), who dreams of one day being a famous singer. He’s owned by Jandahar’s jovial but callous cousin, Zemar (Osh Ghanimah), who works with Jandahar at an American-built power plant, and has a lustful eye for Paiman. Jandahar is kind enough, even paternal, to his “boy,” whom he has come to love, but will not stand for any disobedience or disruption of tradition; to dismiss tradition as a foundation for life is to be “dancing on air.”  
Troy Iwata, Nikhil Saboo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The threat of disruption happens soon enough when Paiman and Feda fall in love and consider running off to find freedom as they sing “In the City.” It’s one of the few songs that stand out in an otherwise dull, melodically uninteresting (despite hints of the Middle East) score played offstage by a five-piece band. 
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
There’s also an unnecessary subplot: for all his arguing against breaking rules, Jandahar himself will break some. Angry that the American power plant has failed to produce the electricity needed for local development (he has an entrepreneurial vision), he decides to subvert a CNN documentary seeking to present a rosy picture of its success. 
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Throughout, a mysterious, bearded guy, “The Unknown Man” (Deven Kolluri), appears and reappears, commenting on the action and playing minor roles as needed. Toward the end we discover who he is although some may find themselves as unsure of his identity then as they’ve been all along. A sheer, backlit curtain allows several scenes he introduces to be performed behind it in shadow-style silhouette, sometimes arranged so one of the actors can appear as a small boy sharply contrasting with a tall man, emphasizing the power dynamic in these man-boy relationships.
Jonathan Raviv, Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Afghanistan is so rarely represented on stage it makes for an automatically intriguing locale. Oddly, The Boy Who Danced on Air mentions neither the war, the Taliban, nor Al Qaeda; it barely talks about religion; shows no prayer mats; and, with an all-male cast, displays no burkas.  
Nikhil Saboo, Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Instead, we get authentic male costuming (designed by Andrea Lauer), the unit set of a partially bombed-out mud and brick interior (artfully designed by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader and dramatically lit by Wen-Ling Liao), and close-enough-to-the-real-thing choreography of Nejla Yatkin. 

Troy Iwata, Nikhil Saboo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Nonetheless, director Tony Speciale’s earnest, physically agile production never convinces us we’re not on W. 36th Street but in rural Afghanistan. Partly, this is because the dialogue and accents (especially of the boys) sound so American.
Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv, Troy Iwata, Osh Ghanimah. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Iwata and Saboo dance and sing with grace and sensitivity; Iwata has a particularly difficult number (“Paiman’s Dance) where, with an injured foot, he tries to fashion a routine out of his disability. Raviv, who sings well in numbers such as “Kabul,” is a believably controlling patriarch; he manages to make Jandahar sympathetic despite his capacity for cruelty. Ghanimah has several effective moments when he shows off his penchant for telling jokes but Kolluri, with blurry diction and a look of sorrow always pasted on his face, can’t avoid the curse of monotony. 
The Boy Who Danced on Air. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The Boy Who Danced on Air is to be applauded for dramatizing the nasty practice of bacha bazi in a way that finds tragic beauty in its victims. But provocative subject matter, even when sensitively presented, doesn’t necessarily make great theatre. When I attended, the elated audience was moved enough to practically dance on air during the curtain calls. For me, though, the air had gone out of this sluggish, unfulfilled musical long before its two hours and 20 minutes were over.

 OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Abingdon Theatre Company/June Havoc Theatre
312 W. 36th St., NYC

Through June 11

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