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    Complete archive, 1999-present

    2008-2009 reviews:
  • Anaïs Nin Goes To Hell
  • beast: a parable
  • Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire
  • Blasted
  • Buffalo Gal
  • China: The Whole Enchilada
  • The Corn Maiden
  • Crawl, Fade to White
  • Doruntine
  • Extraordinary Rendition
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  • Fringe Festival 2008
  • Fringe Festival favorites
  • The Glass Cage
  • Hair
  • Hidden Fees* (A Play About Money)
  • Jailbait
  • King of Shadows
  • The Longest Running Joke of the Twentieth Century
  • Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising
  • Macbeth
  • The Master Builder
  • Missa Solemnis, or The Play About Henry
  • Mourn the Living Hector
  • A Nasty Story
  • Nowadays
  • the october crisis (to laura)
  • Oresteia
  • Other Bodies
  • Prayer
  • Psalms of a Questionable Nature
  • Raised by Lesbians
  • Reasonable Doubt
  • Sleepwalk With Me
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  • Something Weird . . . in the Red Room
  • Soul Samurai
  • The Sound of One Hanna Clapping
  • Southern Promises
  • The Third from the Left
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  • Zombie


    Eschewing "Gum"

    Karen Hartman's "Gum" concerns itself with women's roles in Islamic society, but in a scattershot fashion that does little to increase the audience's understanding of its subject.


    The price that a woman out of step with her society is made to pay for her sexual defiance has been a fertile subject for dramatists and authors since well before Hester Prynne's indiscretion in puritanical Massachusetts. In the play "Gum," currently in its New York premiere at the Women's Project and Productions Theater on West 55th Street, it is Islamic puritanism that provides context, but playwright Karen Hartman has bitten off more than she or we can chew.

    Written by: Karen Hartman.
    Directed by: Loretta Greco.
    Cast: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Angel Desai, Firdous Bamji, Lizan Mitchell.
    Two sisters, Rahmi and Lina, free to appear unveiled in the privacy of their family courtyard, have succumbed to the illicit pleasures of foreign chewing gum, which Ms. Hartman means to serve as a symbol, and surrogate, for sexual pleasure. The idea that imported chewing gum might contain some secret ingredient designed by the West to undermine the moral purity of Islamic women is at once paranoid and typically Iranian, given the doctrine of "Westoxication" that helped usher in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the seizing of the American embassy in Teheran. Had Karen Hartman's enigmatic play "Gum" contented itself with exploring that idea, it might have succeeded better than it does.

    No specific country is named in "Gum," but we recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran from everything we have seen and read. While we may be tempted to accept Ms. Hartman's view of women's sexual desires as more or less universal, there are cultural nuances we sense have been left out. The play's weakness is that it never makes up its mind whether it is about female genital mutilation, sexual repression of women in Islamic society, a younger sister's identity crisis or the suspected corruption of Islamic society by insidious western influences. Any one of these would have served as rich subject matter for theatrical exploration. Muddled together as they are in "Gum," we are left to wonder what the playwright wants us to take away at the play's conclusion.

    Both Ms. Hartman's writing and Loretta Greco's direction appear not to be committed to fully realizing the painful truths that lurk beneath the Baroque surface of the play. The climactic scene where Rahmi's sexual indiscretion in a car is revealed to her family and fiance opts for a premature blackout, thus denying us the emotional wallop we deserve,and need, to better understand what follows.

    Given the jumble they have to work with, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Angel Desai as Rahmi and Lina manage to hold our attention. Rubin-Vega's secret weapon is her raspily-sensual voice, which she uses perfectly to convey the pleasure she has taken with two boys in the back seat of a car. She succeeds somewhat less in making us believe that Rahmi has serious plans to become a doctor and escape her fate in this repressive society. Desai fully comes into her own in the play's coda, which disorients us by making it seem as if we have been concerned with the wrong sister for the previous hour. Firdous Bamji makes the most of a thankless role of Rahmi's suitor and eventual fiance and Lizan Mitchell presents a particular feistiness as the Auntie which seems out of context in the Iranian setting.

    Not that "Gum" isn't full of tantalizing ideas about women, sex, identity and freedom. But Karen Hartman has not crafted a narrative of sufficient weight to accommodate them and let them fall into their proper places. Most disappointing is the playwright's apparent willingness to perpetuate the idea of an intriguing, yet opaque Islamic culture that westerners too seldom go beyond. Gum is packed with evocative cultural details. The call to prayer that opens and closes the play, the overturned chairs signifying a period of mourning and the steaming water poured into a courtyard pool to prepare a bath vividly suggest a world we want to understand. But these are mere decoration in a play that won't allow us to fathom the psychological depths of its characters.

    As a metaphor for sex, gum loses its flavor long before the play hits its climax.

    OCTOBER 28, 1999

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