Arts & Events

Theater Review: '444 Days'--Golden Thread Founder Torange Yeghiazarian on Iranian-American Relations-LAST WEEKEND

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday October 30, 2013 - 10:22:00 PM

Quick flash of an image: Bedside in a hospital, where a lovely young woman lies unconscious, on an audible respirator, as another woman raises her head, covered with a scarf or shawl, from the bed at the sight of a male figure in trenchcoat with briefcase hovering in the hall light through the open door ...  

So begins the tangled plot of Torange Yeghiazarian's new play, '444 Days,' a story that spans the globe and 35 years of history, yet is confined to one room, four players, one of them unconscious.  

Torange founded Golden Thread Productions in 1996 to stage--and provoke--plays on Middle Eastern issues and identity for Bay Area audiences; '444 Days' pares that commitment down to the bone, its plot refracted from the breaking point in relations between her native country and the States--the Tehran Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979-81--and the world events proceeding from that time: always in the background of what happens onstage hovers the CIA overhrow of the Mossadegh government, the Iranian Revolution, the Hostage Crisis, the devastating war between Iraq & Iran, US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, sanctions over a suspected nuclear weapons program, reformist figures in Iranian government ... just as Harry's figure hovers in the door. 

"Harry is after something," says Laleh (Jeri Lynn Cohen, familiar to audiences of Word For Word, and other Bay Area theaters), who has brought her daughter Hadyeh (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) to the Bay Area from Iran for medical treatment. "Ever since I became a minister, he's chased me around the world." 

Harry (Michael Shipley) and Laleh met under he most awkward circumstances, when she was among the students who took over the US Embassy, Harry captured there as one of the diplomatic personnel. Despite all that--or, perversely, because of it--they drew close for awhile. At the opening of the play, they haven't seen each other since the hostages were released, on Reagan's inauguration day, and have only been fitfully in touch, often indirectly. 

Direction by Bella Warda, co-founder of Oakland's Iranian theater group, Darvag, is admirably workmanlike, navigating a middle course through a volatile plot that could veer off into soap opera or mere abstruseness without a concentrated focus. The acting is accomplished. Designers Mikiko Uesugi (set), Jim Cave (lights), Ninva Warda (costumes) and Brendan Aanes (sound) keep the same sort of focus, with stylistic grace notes, for the sense of place ... 

The play excellently uses a device canonized by Racine to ease the flow of exposition away from endless soliloquies--a nurse, Olivia, who becomes interlocutor, confidante, even, to both Laleh and Harry. (Played with demure panache, if that's not too much of an oxymoron, by Sheila Collins--in many ways, the most engaging role and performance in the production.) 

The plot thickens, almost solidifies in its density ... The unexpected turns include a strange, wonderful coup de théâtre, a monologue amidst the dialoguing that proves to be the best moment of playwrighting.  

'444 Days' is a play bursting at the seams, even though so much of its characters' expression borders on diffidence. There are quick flashbacks, repetitions of the same pronouncements and promises, past and present. Some of this becomes reminiscent of O'Neill's plays, or Strindberg's, even in its conclusion, touching on tragedy--and maybe begging the question as to further use of stylization for an almost unrelieved hour and a half of realism, a chamber play taking on something of the scope of Epic Theater, despite the strange, almost poetic intimacy of its story. 

It's the last weekend to catch this production of '444 Days,' though it will undoubtedly--and deservedly--find its way back to the stage. 

Through November 3--Thursday-Saturday, 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3. Z Below, formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre, below Z Space, formerly Theater Artaud, 470 Florida (near 18th & Bryant), San Francisco. $20-$35. 866-811-4111; golden