Before 9 Parts of Desire last night, I stopped off for a drink in the Target Lounge, the tight little bar tucked back beneath the Endless Bridge. There are three specialty cocktails on the menu this March, this Women’s History Month, each honoring one of the three female leads performing on the three Guthrie stages. I ordered the astonishing jack and coke: simple, just Jack Daniels and Coca Cola over ice, garnished with—wait for it—nine maraschino cherries. One wet, red cherry for each character lead actress Kate Eifrig portrays in the one-woman show. By the end of the drink, I had nine stems jumbled in front of me on my cocktail napkin.
Overkill? Sure, but 9 Parts of Desire begins with a similarly heavy handed metaphor. Eifrig comes out to play in a gigantic sandbox, with only a few props strewn about: some charred books, empty picture frames and a portrait of Saddam Hussein, a large washbasin and a Persian rug. Her character, an Arab woman swathed in a jet-black burka, obscuring everything but the angular planes of her face, is carrying a basket of blackened shoes. In halting English, with a strong Iraqi accent, the woman explains that she has come to the ancient banks of this river to wash the soles of these shoes.
Soles, souls. Get it?
Ambitious in its austerity—written by the American-Iraqi playwright Heather Raffo—9 Parts gets much better after that first scene. And it must be a dream role for Eifrig. She gets to go Eddie Murphy in Coming to America on it, using only her physical and verbal gifts and what seems to be one of those wrap dresses that come with their own wear-it-101-ways! DVDs. She portrays a downright Churchillian ex-pat watching the war from London, chewing scenery in a regal Kathleen Hepburn accent. She does a tweenaged Iraqi girl that can distinguish between the sound of a RPG and a bomb dropped from a plane as easily as two different boy band singles. A hunched over old woman who takes us through a bomb shelter where her family was gruesomely boiled within, Slaughterhouse Five-style, by a Gulf War I incendiary bomb. An American woman trying to connect to her relatives in the middle of a firefight. And a decadent, bourgeoisie Iraqi artiste whose flamboyant Cruella De Ville cackle belies her humiliation by the government officials she sleeps with in order to keep painting her nudes.
There are some thrilling moments for Eifrig, and it must be incredibly rewarding to stretch as an actress in this way. That is what we love about one-woman plays, right? The volatile emotional hurly-burly, with an incredibly talented, Joan Allen-beautiful woman like Eifrig going to the wall for the audience. At a great one woman show, I feel like Marcello in 8 ½, when all of his ex-girlfriends are collected in one room (this is every man’s fantasy, deep down). A great one-woman play is an intoxicating experience.
But let’s not get carried away. Shakespeare asked, “Can we desire too much of a good thing?” and 9 Parts might be just that. It’s definitely timely (even though this news cycle, the war isn’t polling as well as the economy), and it has some compelling perspectives. For instance, the children wearing bullets jacketed with depleted uranium around their necks, leading to the despair of an Iraqi doctor overwhelmed by a steady flow of cancer and genetic mutations. Or that sultry bourgeoisie painter who chides us for injecting ourselves in an ancient dispute, who heckles the audience for our naivete, for daring to “Love like an Iraqi woman--to love like you can’t even breathe!” 9 Parts submerses you in facts and anecdotes told by a virtuoso performer, but at times, you feel talked at. For despite the multi-layered, po-mo collage of a story, there is no great unifying aesthetic experience. If you pay attention—and granted, most of us are no longer paying attention, so getting all these POVs in an hour and a half has a certain value—but if you do pay attention, you can get all of this stuff from the fog of multimedia available to us 24/7. It’s fine if you’re going to divide this war into pieces in an attempt to comprehend it, but you should leave us with something.