The Broadway Theatre Review: The Kite Runner
It’s a sobering, yet beautiful beginning, with backs turned as two kites fly in the projected sky. The engagement is clear, and the style something familiar. We are told, directly, narrator-style, that for this journey, we will have to peek back in time, down an alley, and into a past that is trying its best to be forgotten. But it will not be dismissed, regardless. It will claw its way out from the Afghan earth most determinedly and be seen and heard. We know the deal, and we are prepared for the trauma of The Kite Runner, even as we engage tentatively (especially for those who have read the book) knowing full well what will come, and it won’t be easy to take in.
Amir, the man standing center stage, engaging most directly and empathetically with us, is the handle and fist that will spin this tale around so assuredly. Solidly portrayed by Amir Arison (“NBC’s “The Blacklist“; NYTW’s Aftermath), he will take us by the hand and lead us through the horrific pain and disturbing flight of The Kite Runner, a stage play tenderly adapted by the talented Matthew Spangler (Albatross) based firmly on the first novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini (“A Thousand Splendid Suns“). Amir’s soul is not settled, that is clear. It strains the face and the heart of its leading man as he steps in and embodies this well-to-do Pashtun boy in the hitherto peaceful city of Kabul who will grow up to be this very man with this pained complication. And deep in this fantastically orchestrated history play, he holds the strings of this play, even when they are ripping into his skin from the tension and making him bleed for us all to see.
It’s obvious, on that magnificently curved stage, laid out by set and costume designer Barney George (West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Sleuth); with a somewhat over-simplified lighting design by Charles Balfour (Broadway’s The River); a solid sound design by Drew Baumohl (Nottingham Playhouse’s Pride and Prejudice); and intricate atmospheric projections on a vast bifurcated kite by William Simpson (Nottingham Playhouse’s Richard III); that the tale is going to be a strong and willful projection of shame and cowardice. And that the trouble revolves around Amir’s friendship with his most trusted companion in this young boy’s world, Hassan, beautifully portrayed by the angelic Eric Sirakian (West End’s The Jungle). His forever playmate comes with his own societal complication. He is the son of Ali (Evan Zes), the deeply devoted servant of Amir’s father. But more importantly, in the complicated world that they inhabit, Hassan is a Hazara boy, which according to the neighborhood bully, Assef, well played by Amir Malaklou (NBC’s “The Endgame“), he is, by nature, an inferior race and not appropriate for Amir to be spending his days with. But they do, most happily, with the complete support of Amir’s father, Baba, stoically portrayed by Faran Tahir (Shakespeare Theatre’s Othello). The two boys are both motherless sons, you see, spending their youthful days playing, dreaming, watching western movies starring John Wayne, and kite fighting, a competitive slant on what I used to see as a peaceful pass time that had no winners or losers at hand. This is not the case in Afghanistan.
Hassan, it turns out, is Amir’s natural and expert “kite runner”, a tremendous talent to hold, as it seems he is able to know exactly where a kite will land without even watching it. It’s a gift that might help the nervous and heartbroken Amir find a way to get into favor with his hard and stern father, Baba, who is forever critical of his own son. He sees him as weak and not driven like he was and is, and even wonders, out loud, that if he hadn’t actually seen his son born from the womb of his wife, who died in childbirth, he wouldn’t believe that this boy could possibly be his own flesh and blood. To make matters worse, Baba openly embraces the sadistic bully and family friend’s son, Assef, even as the boy obviously and cruelly mocks him and his inferiority with a gift of a soccer ball, a sport Amir hates, at his own birthday party.
The Kite Runner plays out this dynamic with a stern yet visible air, never feeling overly harsh or dramatic, but rooted in honesty and pain. As directed with a wise straightforward edge by Giles Croft (Nottingham Playhouse’s Arcadia), the replay flies forward almost too neat and tidily in its chronological process. As narrated with this step-by-step approach, the play marches forward, easily establishing the father/son relationship as the major landscape for the shame and betrayal that will bring the story to its end. “There is something missing in this boy,” we are told, and deep inside the young boy’s conflict with Assef, cowardice steps forward and grabs Amir’s soul in its painful grip. It causes him to look away that one moment when he might have done otherwise, when he should of, or could have done something else, like be brave, or fearlessly loyal like Hassan is with him. But that moment escapes him, leaving an invisible wound that he will be forced to carry long into his adulthood, regardless of how far he travels away from that alley in Afghanastan.
The act of betrayal, and the win for Baba, are seen as maybe the coupling price Amir had to pay for his father’s love. Yet, the shame of his betrayal may never find its way out of his heart, as we watch from the sidelines the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy, through to the Soviet invasion, the exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the rise of the Taliban regime inside Afghanistan. Amir and his father find their escape from the violence of their own country, most dramatically and tensely, but so much is packed away inside them even as they leave with so little in their hands.
The production doesn’t hold back, giving slices of the trauma for us to inhale, although we never really get a whiff of the full violent power inside their country’s borders. I remember reading the New York Times bestseller book (on that list for over two years) and feeling the weight of the trauma on every page; a deeply upsetting experience, and one I will not forget. The stage play does manage to center itself around the societal trauma, the heartbreaking attachment crisis, and the tearing apart of one’s soul around shame within a truthful framework, even if the presentation sometimes feels less powerful and more workhorse-like.
When Amir’s father is asked by his young son why he drinks alcohol, an act which is strictly forbidden by Islam, Baba’s answer sets the stage for his basic truth in life, but also one that unknowingly creates a deep complication, as he tells him most honestly that the only real and true sin is theft which takes many forms. That framework will stay with Amir, even once he is established in San Francisco and married to the lovely and engaging Soraya, portrayed smoothly by Azita Ghanizada (“Good Trouble“), the daughter of General Taheri (Houshang Touzie), a former military general in the Afghan Army and friend of his father, Baba. Their courtship is both touching, and somewhat ceremonial, as it feels more chronological than it needs to be, with simplistic, albeit emotional themes being trotted out once again for our enlightenment.
Yet, finally what we are waiting for comes. A chance for atonement, and it is presented to Amir later in his adult life from the much kinder and more gentle father-figure in Amir’s early Afghani days, Rahim Khan, (Dariush Kashani) Baba’s closest friend. Rahim always seemed, back in the day, to understand and support the young boy’s true interests, like writing and such, but in that moment, he presents Amir with a more difficult and dangerous gift. He is asked to drive head first into a quest for redemption; to atone for his troubling transgression, but it is back in the now dangerous land of his youth and in the sadistic hands of his one true nemesis.
Music carries the beat of trauma forward, filtered through the musician’s gaze as he watches from the sidelines with compassion and understanding. The sounds are brought forth by composer/musical supervisor Jonathan Girling (NT’s Macbeth) and Tabla Artist Salar Nader, and embodied most hypnotically in this marvelous cast thanks to movement director, Kitty Winter (Trafalgar Studios’ The Fishermen). They unearth the underlying burden that lives inside Amir.
The themes of brotherly betrayal, particularly in connection to his best friend and playmate, all for the love of a father who struggles to see himself in his own son, are utterly devastating to witness, particularly as portrayed most majestically by Arison. Even as he inhabits the tender difficult scenes as a young boy playing in the streets with Sirakian’s Hassan, his lean and expressive portrayal elevates the troubled conscience that lies deep down underneath his skin. Sirakian adds more sharpness to the frame with every pained look on his face as he holds to his honoring of his best friend regardless of the dangers that surround him. It’s heartbreaking to witness, particularly as we watch him register his friend’s abandonment and betrayal, at a time when he needs his friend the most.
The circling back and around the story of guilt and atonement to the winding spinning music of its inner beat finds its way up high into the sky. The production preserves the wind’s strength and its inner glow throughout the two and half hours that it unwinds on the stage. It’s a very workable adaptation, rarely failing its powerful source material, even if it has somehow misplaced or sliced off some of the more epic dark qualities. Regardless of which way the wind blows, The Kite Runner flies high, never letting go of our hearts, nor the tight painful tension of the string that cuts into the hands of Arison’s Amir.