Culture 2 Go

Women are the world
9 Parts of Desire
Empty Spaces Theatre Co.
Through June 27 at
Lowndes Shakespeare Center
812 E. Rollins St.

Islamic culture is a mystery to most Americans, and a lack of exposure has made it something of a social bogeyman in the Christ-centric South. How bold then for director John DiDonna of Empty Spaces Theatre Co. to mount 9 Parts of Desire, a semi-autobiographical, award-winning piece by playwright Heather Raffo about the war-torn lives of women in Iraq.

Raffo's writing comes from the perspective of a woman who is American with family ties to Iraq. As she explained in her post-hit PR, it was during a visit to the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad in her youth that she saw a painting of desperate nude woman clinging to a barren tree that sent the muses to work in her head. A decade later, she penned 9 Parts of Desire, which interweaves the individual stories of nine Iraqi women from various, and sometimes ambiguous, generations and tribes within the country.

The opening scene sets the mood: The women take to the dark stage silently performing prayer rituals to the wailing music of their tradition. They are together and yet they are quite alone, as we find out, including the dominant character, the fictional artist (Leesa Halstead) behind Raffo's truly haunting artwork. The women take turns in the spotlight, sharing with the audience like girlfriends at lunch; they speak in broken English with authentic-sounding accents. We laugh at a bubbly Bedouin (Olivia Horn) about her weight concerns and the folly of love, and we are amused by twitterpated teen (Sarah Villegas), who dreams of Justin Timberlake while confined to her home because of the dangers posed by both the bombs and the soldiers outside.

From all of them, we hear the commonality: They are survivors of horrific crimes and incensed by the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the explosive invasions by America. The truth is unspeakable, and yet we hear them and their pain, sometimes cloaked and sometimes in detail, but always disturbing — especially because many specifics are based on real-life events.

Rather suddenly, toward the end of the no-intermission, 100-minute production, the paradigm shifts abruptly; an increasing sense of urgency is driven by the sound of detonating bombs. It's as if the women are swirling together in a ubiquitous vortex — alone and yet together — and the boundaries between them are no longer clear.

Performance-wise, the actresses are fully committed to their women, save a few flubbed lines and a tad too much hair tossing by Villegas that distracted from her fragility. Some critical dialogue was lost in the theater-in-the-round presentation, particularly Halstead's; her artist remains the pillar of cohesiveness in Raffo's medley, and her hysterical emoting competed with the sound effects in the finale. Every word is necessary to complete the pieces of the puzzle. The aftershock felt by the audience was palpable on opening night; as the lights went up many sat in their seats, stunned. And those with sensitivity to sexual violence please be forewarned: This reality is a bitch.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

Crock of wit
Through July 11 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
$22 (by donation on Wednesday)

There is something fabulous about fabulists' fables: While spinning falsehoods, they cleverly affirm the universal truth that we all yearn for lives of adventure, romance and triumph. So we listen with rapt attention, desperately wanting to believe that even if our own lives are less than fantastic, at least somebody, somewhere has reached to the stars — and touched them. Such a fabulist was Louis De Rougemont, born Henri Louis Grin in 1847.

A sickly child, raised on adventure novels, Rougemont achieved his 15 minutes of fame in the late 19th century, after a London-based magazine published a series of his stories depicting his adventures as a pearl diver in the Coral Sea, a shipwrecked sailor surviving alone on a tropical island and a demi-god living among the Australian aborigines. He wrote of braving giant octopuses and violent ocean storms, fighting fierce tribes of savages and traversing the waves on the backs of giant sea turtles. Rougemont's tall tales of suffering and success in a faraway, romantic clime charmed and thrilled the British public for a time, until his stories were debunked and he was dismissed as a liar and fraud.

Playwright Donald Margulies, a fabulist in his own way, has fashioned a lively and rollicking good stage version of Rougemont's life and stories fully titled (and subtitled) Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told by Himself). Originally commissioned as a children's play, Shipwrecked! stays true to its story theater roots, employing a host of playful theatrical devices — openly produced sound effects, clever costume pieces, colorful lighting — to take the audience on a childlike journey of invention.

Eric Pinder stars as the rogue Rougemont playing the intrepid but always self-effacing adventurer, somewhere between Robinson Crusoe and Willy Wonka. Eric Fagan and Trenell Mooring, two versatile and appealing performers, abet Pinder in his pursuits by impersonating all the other personages in the tale, as well as providing the primitive visual and aural effects. Under the direction of Rob Anderson and Jay Becker, the three performers weave a beguiling yarn and prove once again that fiction, if not stranger, can be more fabulous than fact.

— Al Krulick

Fears of a clown
Premieres 11 p.m. Tuesday, June 29

Nothing much goes right in Louis C.K.'s TV world. Every encounter is awkward, every stranger a lunatic, every date a disaster. His doctor thinks it's funny to taunt him and joke about him having AIDS. He gets into fist fights with his friends. When he tells his psychiatrist he feels like he has no friends, the doctor's response is, "Do you think it's because you're fat?"

He's like Larry David without the money and Rodney Dangerfield without the bulging eyes and relatable catch phrase. That's a dark and dangerous place to take an audience, but in C.K.'s new FX comedy Louie, he makes it work for the most part. He's likeable enough as he plays a divorced father of two young girls. Because he wants to do the right thing and isn't inconsiderate or malicious, like David so often is on Curb Your Enthusiasm, you can't help but hope that something will go right for the guy. He's also funny. Well, as funny as you can be when you make jokes about having sex with animals and feel like, as he says in the show, "Every day starts with me, like, my eyes open and I reload the program of misery."

In the sitcom, C.K. plays a version of himself, a standup comic in New York; like early episodes of Seinfeld, he alternates between his onstage shows and living let-down life. He plays poker with other comics, volunteers at his daughters' school and hopes to find the right woman, but why bother? Even if the relationship goes perfectly, he notes, eventually she's going to die. That doesn't stop him from trying. In the first three episodes, he goes on a date with a woman who makes the greatest escape you'll ever see, looks up a sexually aggressive former classmate via Facebook and hooks up with a young woman who finds him hot because he's old — 42 to be exact.

In the fourth episode, Louie meets with another single parent played by Pamela Adlon and don't be confused. She did co-star with C.K. in the canceled-after-one-season Lucky Louie in 2006 on HBO, in which the couple carped at each other like Ralph and Alice Kramden. Here, the chemistry looks promising, setting us up for the inevitable fall. How much you enjoy Louie will depend largely on how much underlying sadness you like in your comedy, but I laughed far more than I cringed.

— Marc D. Allan

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