The Spectacle of Suffering in ‘Through the Elevated Line’

 

Set in Chicago, the play centers on the arrival of Razi Gol (Salar Ardebili)  to his sister’s apartment in Uptown, right off of the Lawrence CTA Red Line. Soraya (Catherine Dildilian), Razi’s sister, has been in the United States for more than a decade after leaving her family in Shiraz, Iran to attend school and lives with her white Irish-American husband Chuck (Joshua K. Volkers).  

Razi, destitute, deeply traumatized by state violence in Iran and mourning a tremendous loss, arrives in Chicago just as bewildered and unbalanced as Williams’ Blanche DuBois. He is welcomed into his sister’s life and home, although not by Chuck. While trying to adjust to his new life, Razi is introduced to high-powered white lawyer Sean (Philip Winston) and the two begin a relationship. Tensions rise between Chuck and Razi and Soraya, as questions of cultural superiority and anti-immigrant rhetoric seep into the triangular dynamic. Underlying everything is Razi’s worsening mental health, and the choices he makes as a result.

Through the Elevated Line, a new play by Novid Parsi, explores what it means to be unwelcome in the United States. Parsi performs what the show’s program calls a “conjuring” of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire by replicating the dramatic structure of Williams’ work in the relationships between Soraya, Razi and Chuck.

Through the Elevated Line operates within a framework where trauma, mental illness, queer sexuality and racial otherness are positioned as transgressions. It does not do much in the way of challenging this framework.  Rather, it creates a spectacle of the pain and trauma of a brown gay immigrant man suffering from severe PTSD and depression. Much like Williams’ Blanche Dubois, Razi’s downward spiral forms the basis for the play’s central question and is the catalyst for dramatic action.  The aim of this spectacle seems to be a motivational effort to inspire the audience to question their own political and social positions as they relate to the various identities that Razi inhabits. The play appeals to the humanity of the audience to recognize Razi’s humanity by relying on the spectacular portrayal of Razi’s emotional and physical trauma at the hands of white supremacy and U.S. imperialism.  Salar Ardebili’s portrayal of Razi is masterful and truly heart wrenching, and the play delivers a devastating conclusion that is deeply affecting.

While the play succeeds in demonstrating the brutality of the U.S. immigration system, I am deeply unsettled by the way it does so. The replication of acute racial trauma as an educational project carries the potential to limit the perception of the people it portrays. The representation of the pain and struggle that people of color in the United States endure on a daily basis has always been deeply fraught. I do not mean that Parsi or any playwright should not reflect the reality of the U.S. as it is. I only offer this question: do marginalized and brutalized people have to suffer and die on stage in order to convince audiences of their humanity?

Parsi positions the audience away from the epicenter of Razi’s emotional turmoil, and explores how his pain and the choices he makes from within that pain affect the people around him. As  part of that positioning, the play presents Chuck and Sean as receptacles for the question: “what would I do in their place?”, or perhaps more accurately, “would I do what they are doing?” I would argue to a certain extent that Soraya also invites that question. While Sean and Chuck represent two starkly different versions of patriarchal white-supremacy, Soraya’s presents a complicated narrative. Throughout the play Soraya is presented as an archetypal “good immigrant woman,” one who has succeeded at assimilating into U.S. society, in contrast to her brother, whose transgressions are ultimately punished. While the dynamics between these four characters successfully carries a sort of allegory of U.S. politics with regard to immigration, it also relies on Razi’s pain and anguish and the rejection of it to inspire sympathy, not empathy.  

Through the Elevated Line is an emotionally searing portrayal of the trials of immigration, homophobia, and racism. Its language, particularly the incorporation of the words and spirit of 14th century Sufi mystic and Persian poet Hafez, is genuinely moving and quite beautiful. Director Carin Silkaitis crafted a sharp performance, and guided skilled, talented actors through this difficult piece. Playwright Novid Parsi asks a great many important and salient questions in this work: What makes a good immigrant, and what makes a bad one? How do we respond to mental distress and addiction, especially in the context of people who have survived terrible trauma? What are the limits of our own compassion?  Certainly the play asks these questions, but it does so without challenging the social and cultural narratives that surround and underpin them. Razi is never given a chance to heal, to be understood, and to do it on his own terms. While that may be the reality of someone in his position in this country, I cannot help but wonder how replicating that reality acutely on stage might narrow the chances for empathy if Razi’s life and perspective are not at the center.

Photos by Airan Wright

Through the Elevated Line
by Novid Parsi
Directed by Carin Silkaitas

Silk Road Rising
The Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W. Washington St. Lower Level

Run: 3/17-4/15
Tues: 7:30 pm, Fridays: 8:00 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 4:00pm

Tickets: $38 for adults, $20.50 for students @ www.SilkRoadRising.org

Cast:
Salar Ardebili: Razi
Catherine Dildilian: Soraya
Joshua J. Volkers: Chuck
Alison Plott: Beth
Scott Shimizu: Ben
Philip Winston: Sean
Armando Reyes: Paletero, Cesar, ICE agent

Production Team:
Joshua Baggett: Stage Manager
Joe Schermoly: Set Designer
Elsa Hiltner: Costume Designer
Lindsey Lyddan: Lighting Designer
Jeffrey Levin: Sound Designer and Original Music
Abigail Cain: Props Designer
Gaby Labotka: Fight and Intimacy Choreographer
Kate Cuellar: Dramaturg

Aziza Barnes’ ‘BLKS’ Gets Up Close and Personal

This review is written by Logan McCullom, an alumni of The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program.

Stumbling through the seemingly unending crowds and stairs that make up Steppenwolf’s theatre, I was frazzled and bewildered by how many folks I saw waiting to be seated for the opening night of BLKS. At first glance I found the title to be easy and not very enticing at all, but it was quickly redeemed as I saw the set. Like the title would prove to be, it was comprised of… well… everything. There was no shortage of couches, there were even couches on the walls! Set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer draped long blue curtains on the stage, making distinct isolations that served as different rooms within the same stage. It was messy, chaotic, a perfect representation of life on your own, and I loved it. Continue reading “Aziza Barnes’ ‘BLKS’ Gets Up Close and Personal”

‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard

By Lavina Jadhwani

“Casting should be diverse. Shakespeare is meant for everyone.”

This simple statement, written atop the casting breakdown of Lauren Gunderson’s new play, THE BOOK OF WILL at Northlight Theatre, filled me with so much hope.

I am a woman of color who regularly directs Shakespeare and regularly encounters pushback when trying to convince producers and audiences that the words people often assume were written primarily for white, cis, able-bodied men can be shared by, well, everyone. That’s why I was so moved by Gunderson’s sentiment and so excited by the casting announcements made by the Denver Center and Oregon Shakespeare Festival regarding this play. (The world premiere in Denver included two South Asian actors — my desi heart soared!!) My heart sank, however, when I saw the casting announcement of a local company, Northlight Theatre, which included an all white cast and production team. Nevertheless, I attended the production in hopes of learning something new about this play and the world of William Shakespeare. I wanted to keep an open mind. And honestly — I wanted to support my friends. Continue reading “‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard”

Rhapsody in Blue Eyeliner: Taylor Mac’s ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’

Jerome Joseph Gentes

Author’s note: I attended two different “versions” of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at The Curran on Sunday September 24 and at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Wednesday September 27. This review compares the two audience experiences of “Chapter IV” and “Abridged Version” respectively.

What makes a piece of theatre a phenomenon? What turns it from instance to event? Driven by conscious and subconscious hope that their art goes the analog equivalent of viral, artists create art everyday from fine to pop, traditional to technological. Artistic organizations do this, as do artist teams. Most of it never becomes an event. Theatre that does may do so incidentally, and in cases like the Broadway productions of ANGELS IN AMERICA, RENT and HAMILTON, deliberately. Continue reading “Rhapsody in Blue Eyeliner: Taylor Mac’s ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’”

The Consequences of Fake Allyship in ‘A View From the Bridge’

Regina Victor

If you’ve studied the American Theater, chances are you’ve heard of Arthur Miller, the King of Kitchen Sink Realism. Trust me when I say, Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge is not your mother’s Arthur Miller. There isn’t a sink in sight. In fact all unnecessary props, down to certain actor’s shoes, have been eliminated. This actor-driven production features a square set with dark-colored benches and a white floor, designed by Jan Versweyveld. Audience sits on either side of the stage, meaning the actors are playing to a house that’s three-quarters in the round. It feels like a boxing ring with only one entrance and exit upstage, which adds to the feeling of being trapped in the space. Continue reading “The Consequences of Fake Allyship in ‘A View From the Bridge’”

Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The premise of the well-known American drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams centers around single mother Amanda Wingfield, her oldest son Tom, and his little sister Laura who have found themselves in a financial squeeze since only Tom is able to work. Out of desperation, Amanda decides to try and set Laura up with a “gentleman caller,” a man from Tom’s work named Jim. What differs in this production is the centering of people of color and women in the casting of the play, a point of artistic pride for director Lisa Portes. Amanda and Laura’s predicament doesn’t come across as the result of a debutante who doesn’t believe women should toil, but rather a societal limitation imposed by the times (the play is set in St. Louis in 1937). This increased my empathy for these characters ten-fold. Continue reading “Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’”