Living Up to the Hype 

Seldom is a new play as hotly anticipated as Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, now making its West Coast premiere on the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage. But then it's rare for a play to make the folks at the NEA so nervous it sparks them to debate whether to provide the funds to stage it. Last December, while the NEA grant was still up in the air, Kushner fumed that despite its title, his play had nothing to do with our current conflict with the Taliban.

The playwright's protests don't ring entirely true. Homebody, set in 1998, rakes both the West's colonial legacy and recent foreign policy over the coals. The seeds of the current conflict are spelled out, way too big to miss, and Kushner, who started the play in 1997 and completed it more than a year ago, shows an eerie gift for prophecy.

But this is very much a story about individuals, and even more so a story about women -- the diffuse, bookish Homebody, her raging daughter Priscilla, and the brilliant, desperate Pashtun librarian Mahala. Under Tony Taccone's direction, Homebody/Kabul is a stunning, intense melange of language, emotion, politics, danger, and dreams.

Michelle Morain's Homebody -- who opens the play with a long, intricate, and often self-deprecatingly humorous monologue -- is a hyperintelligent Englishwoman who lives in a near-constant state of apology and regret, noting that "the present is always an awful place to be." She fixates on Kabul, and decides to go there in search of a sort of magic that cannot exist in the "overdeveloped" West. Unfortunately her guidebook is thirty-odd years out of date, so she misses the bit about Afghanistan having become a dangerous place for women, especially women traveling without male companions or the proper clothing. She disappears.

The Homebody's daughter, Priscilla, and husband, Milton, head to Kabul to find her. Things go rapidly sour. First they're told she has been killed by young toughs, but the authorities can't produce the body. So Priscilla takes to the streets, where she meets the gentle poet Khwaja, who agrees to be her "uncle" for cash. They explore the possibility that Homebody isn't really dead, but has instead married a Muslim man, renouncing all ties to her former life. Priscilla manages to do all the things guaranteed to draw the attention of angry armed men: She pulls off her burqa at every opportunity to reveal a body wrapped in tight, revealing clothes, smokes cigarettes, brandishes a CD player, and uses the word "fuck" frequently and vigorously, often as she is beating on the people who are trying to help her. Heidi Dippold plays Priscilla as an enraged rhino of a girl, crashing heedlessly through the literal and metaphorical minefields of Kabul. Meanwhile, the Homebody's husband Milton (an awkward Charles Shaw Robinson), who has never claimed to be brave and isn't starting now, hides out in the hotel room with British aid worker Quango Twistleton (Bruce McKenzie). McKenzie's Twistleton is a far cry from the earnest, stuttering Nikos he played in last year's Big Love. Here he seems to be amused by the depth of his own dissipation, sniffing hungrily at Priscilla's laundry while she's out and introducing Milton to Afghanistan's narcotic bounty.

When last Michelle Morain took the Rep's stage, she was the Oresteia's broadly comic Athena. Here she has to sustain the Homebody's elliptical, swooping speech through a kaleidoscopic mess of ideas about history, love, and magic. Originally Homebody/Kabul was written as a monologue, and while Kushner has since expanded it, the show still feels like a play with a very complicated prologue nailed on. Morain takes a few minutes to warm to the task, but she's delightful once she starts knocking language into new shapes for her own amusement -- especially when she describes the antidepressants that she and her husband take as being "some kind of talented salt," and gives a very funny description of how she imagines the drugs really work. "You need to be patient with me," she cajoles the audience, noting that she tends to circular, overlapping syntax.

The real stunner in this mixed cast is Jacqueline Antaramian, who as Mahala knocks it out of the ballpark. She totally captures the women of Afghanistan who had so much taken from them when the Taliban came to power. When she says "I have no books, I have nothing to read," her despair is an astonishing physical presence. Mahala doesn't see much of a difference between Americans and Brits. "America say, Britain do, women die, dark-skinned babies die," Mahala curses -- a line as chillingly prescient as her "If you love the Taliban so much, send them to New York. Never mind, they're coming to New York." Harsh Nayyar is also wonderful as Khwaja, alternately gently chiding Priscilla on her lack of manners and reciting the Esperanto poetry he wrote in prison. Hector Correa is frightening and unyielding as Mullah Ali Aftar Durranni, who explains that only Islam knows what is right for women as his flunky holds a rifle to a kneeling woman's head.

Some Rep shows end up emphasizing style over substance. Homebody's design, however, meshes neatly with its very talky script. Scenic designer Kate Edmunds has captured a once-beautiful city that now lies in ruins, the only possible refuges a cramped hotel room and the land-mine-ridden area that may or may not house Cain's grave site. Paul Godwin's original score is also an exact fit, a fine blend of Eastern and Western rhythms that are at once seductive and forbidding, one of the many elements that helps Homebody live up to its hype. The tragic story of

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