By Carole Di Tosti – – –
The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival 2021 launched on Wednesday, 6 January 2021 with a full line-up of unique, innovative online productions that promise to be just marvelous. One show which is representative of such a great Under the Radar Festival production is Disclaimer.
Disclaimer is performed and written by Tara Ahmadinejad. Created by Piehole, directed by Jeff Wood and Tara Ahmadinejad, production designer Alexandra Panzer, video design by Stefania Bulbarella, sound design by Ben Vigus, lighting design by Reza Behjat and video associate/programmer is Alessandra Cronin.
The show is a wacky, studied, ingenious dramatic hybrid. Difficult to “pin down” as a particular genre because of its maverick employment of the audience, though it is largely a solo performance by Ahmadinejad, this surprising and beautiful work is about family, cultural isolation, cultural integration, need for community and the necessity to break the shibboleths which manifest in xenophobic stereotypes of “the other.”
Reflecting the well-spring of life in her show, Ahmadinejad taps into a fountain of emotions. She siphons off elements of the comical, mysterious, joyful, sad, and poignant with a rich, sense of what is vitally important to all of us, our core humanity in family relationships and bonds. Disclaimer is predominately a solo show with exceptional technical values and direction by Jeff Wood.
It employs the delightful and clever use of audience members interactively to engage in the family story of Chef Nargis. Ahmadinejad organically unravels the story as Chef Nargis conducts a cooking class with Sous Chef Hassan in which the audience may participate, have a drink and a snack, as they learn how to make the Persian rice dish Sabzi Polo as the Chef shows them in “Chef Nargis’ Kitchen.”
Chef Nargis (Ahmadinejad) is humorous as she gathers her ingredients and informs us over Zoom with the help of Sous Chef Hassan how to wash the Basmati rice again and again until the cloudiness of the water is removed, so the rice can soak overnight in clear water. However, Chef Nargis discovers she missed an important step. The rice she intended to cook with, did not soak overnight. In other words, the Chef has completely blown-up the cooking lesson, because she has not prepared a batch of soaked, uncooked rice for her demonstration. How Chef Nargis gets around this involves the first twist in her plot, the introduction of a family member who helps.
Amidst this initial preparation of herbs and rice, we learn that Chef Nargis has identity issues as a Persian in America which she confides to us, whispering to her Zoom screen to elicit our friendship and confidence. Chef Nargis reminds us Persia is the Biblically ancient culture and land of modern-day Iran with which we are currently in a terrible situation. Digging deeply into the politics considering our government for the past four years, the U.S. has made conditions dire for Iranians with an undeclared “war.” Chef Nargis repeats the word again and again humorously as she tries to figure out what “war” means and forces us to consider.
At that juncture, she prepares us so that we can stand in Chef Nargis’ shoes to empathize with her as an Iranian-American of dual identities. She speaks in unaccented English and looks like any assimilated American woman, but her hidden identity holds all its attendant cultural differences of food, dress, values, opinions, attitudes and Muslim religion. And yet, she lives in America and attempts to grapple with cultural and political “issues,” dualities of identity and negative actions (Muslim travel bans) concerning what it is like to be Iranian in the U.S.
At this point all the tension of a possible “war in Iran” and ideas of “Muslim terror” dissipate, and we fall in love with this sweet, honest, earnest woman. Seeing her humanity, we feel guilty that the U.S. is behaving lousy to Iranians, sanctioning their food and supplies, devaluing their currency and threatening a war. The discriminatory worm has turned.
How Ahmadinejad has brought us to leap past Iranian stereotypes is a complex mixture of reverse psychology, good will, food as a universal language, and superb acting, production values and humor in addition to well-honed, brilliant writing, creative teamwork and directing.
As the cooking lesson has been thrown for a loop, Ahmadinejad’s Chef Nargis is saved by her mother (played by an accented Ahmadinejad with motherly demeanor) who already made the rice. The Chef introduces us to her family (audience members) for the eventual dinner while Sous Chef Hassan reacts with silent hospitality, adding any directives we need to understand about ingredients, discounts, family names etc., in the chat area of Zoom.
One half hour may have passed in this set up, but it seems like five minutes. And what happens after we join the Chef’s family for a pleasant repast of rice, drinks and dancing turns into a murder mystery which is another surprise that has a resolution in what is real. The evening has been fun, wacky, enlightening, endearing and a lesson not in cooking but of love and diplomacy.
How incredible, how magical this production is. I didn’t want to leave the other audience members (Chef Nargis’ family) Chef Nargis and amiable Sous Chef Hassan, all of whom created a community of family and warmth. I have been opaque in my review because I don’t want to give away the twists, surprises and conclusion. Suffice to say Disclaimer is awesome. Kudos to all involved.
You can join in learning Chef Nargis’ story in Disclaimer by making reservations at the Under the Radar Festival website here: https://publictheater.org/calendar/ You’ll be thrilled you did. Runs January 7- 11 and January 14-17.