Entertainment » Theatre

The Kite Runner

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Sep 11, 2012
Ken Baltin, Nael Nacer, and Fahim Hamid star in ’The Kite Runner,’ continuing through Sept. 30 at the New Rep
Ken Baltin, Nael Nacer, and Fahim Hamid star in ’The Kite Runner,’ continuing through Sept. 30 at the New Rep  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The New Repertory Theatre's New England premiere of "The Kite Runner," based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, captures the book's raw emotional power by drawing directly from the book's first-person prose.

In playwright Matthew Spangler's adaptation, the narrative is delivered by Amir (Nael Nacer), the main character. As an adult, Amir not only looks back on his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, but he also joins his younger self (Fahim Hamid) in cavorting around on Paul Tate dePoo III's elegantly designed set, which captures both the rough glory of a sandlot and the bombed-out desolation of a country that has known decades of war.

Young Amir is accompanied in all he does by Hassan (Luke Murtha), who is both his servant and his best friend. Though a year younger, Hassan is the more tough and fearless of the two; when neighborhood bullies like the sneering, brass-knuckles wielding Assef (John Zdrojeski) harass Amir, it's Hassan who faces them down.

Amir's father, Baba (Ken Baltin), frets that there is something "missing" in his son, who favors books and writing over soccer and scrapping. Baba is a wealthy merchant who enjoys the finer things in life, and the set reflects this aptly, with the addition of a comfortable couch, a chandelier, and a bottle of scotch on an end table. Baba is often preoccupied with business matters; Amir picks up on his father's lack of approval and wonders whether it's because his mother died giving birth to him. After all, Baba's cardinal rule is that there is only one sin, and that is theft. Whatever the mullahs may have to say, Baba declares, a glass of scotch is hardly a vice on the level as a theft of truth (lying), or a theft of life (murder).

Baba is also overtly fond of Hassan, showing the boy as much or more favor as he does Amir, despite the fact that Hassan is a servant, as is his father, Ali (Johnnie McQuarley). This may be due in part to the long service Ali has paid Amir's family; Ali and Baba go back four decades, and their friendship is in many ways quite similar to that of Amir and Hassan (for both good and ill, as we discover later on in the play).

Not everyone is pleased to see such affection between a master and his servants. Because Ali and Hassan belong to a despised ethnic minority, Hassan draws special malice from Assef and his brutish cronies. Amir, for his part, becomes a target for his friendship with Hassan, and the fault lines in their friendship (as well as in Amir's character) become evident as soon as Amir, trying to deflect Assef's threats, declares that Hassan is "not my friend, he's my servant!" (This does nothing to assuage Assef, who persists in taunting Amir by calling him "Faggot" and referring to he and Hassan as "lovers.")

Things come to a head on the day of the great kite festival, when competing teams pit their kites against one another, jockeying in the sky and cutting one another's strings. Hassan, we learn, is a phenomenal "kite runner," which is to say, he has the uncanny ability to know just where a rival's defeated kite will come falling back to earth, where it can be claimed as a prize. It's while retrieving a defeated kite for Amir that Hassan finds himself alone and cornered by Assef and the others; a terrible assault follows, one that Amir, searching for Hassan, stumbles upon. Silenced by his cowardice, Hassan bears a burden of searing guilt that creates a gulf between himself and Hassan. Finally unable to bear it any longer, Amir frames Hassan for a crime in order to get him and his father dismissed from service.

Years later, after Afghanistan has fallen into civil war and Baba and Amir have fled to America, Rahim (Scott Fortier), an old business associate and family friend, tracks Amir down. "There is a way to be good again," he tells Amir over the phone from Pakistan; with those words, Rahim both re-opens old wounds of guilt and shame, and offers Amir--who is now an American citizen and successful novelist--a chance to redeem himself. But in order to do so, Amir has to face his past on its own turf, and return to Afghanistan, which has become a land terrorized and soaked in blood by the Taliban. Civilization there has ended; it's sociopaths like Assef who are in charge, killing for pleasure under the aegis of religious and ethnic purity. Returning to Kabul and facing the ghosts from the past (and the demons they have become) may require more courage than Amir has--may, in fact, require his life.

It's not entirely fair to compare the stage version to the movie, but the comparison has to be made if only to assure the reader that this production avoids the mistakes of unsuccessful plays that have earlier film versions. The film version of "The Kite Runner" failed to translate the book to the screen with its core-deep emotional power intact; Spangler's play preserves that power, and artfully compresses the novel's text into a compelling, lyrical narration.

The cast delivers on the promise of Spangler's script. Nacer's delivery encompasses the full range of Amir's boyhood joys and jealousies, as well as his adult ambivalence and, finally, his resolution to do the right thing. The young actors, Hamid and Murtha, who play Amir and Hassan as boys, flesh out roles that could have been allowed to lapse into mere shades of the past. Baltin's Baba is a study in the complexities of mature manhood; Fortier's Rahim is a soul both wise and compassionate, not to mention tough when he needs to be. As the bullying Assef, Zdrojeski channels a character so vile that he's terrific, in the literal sense: He actually vibrates with malice and incipient violence.

This clutch of outstanding performances also includes Paige Clark's Soraya, who becomes Amir's wife, and Dale Place, who portrays Soraya's father, a former Afghani general reduced to running a stand at a San Francisco flea market. One wishes McQuarley's Ali was a larger role, but McQuarley, like many in the cast, has a chance to display his range in a number of smaller roles.

Fred Williams plays a musician who, like the adult Amir, is on stage as the flashback scenes unfold. He doesn't interact with the characters, as the adult Amir sometimes does, but once or twice there is a look and a nod that passes between the musician (whose drum playing provides texture and atmosphere to the production) and the adult Amir. What becomes clear is that, in these scenes from Act I, they--and not the people living in Afghanistan in the early 1970s--are the ghosts.

Director Elaine Vaan Hogue puts it all together with the assurance of a fine craftsperson. In and of itself, the story is a little too contrived and over-plotted, full of coincidence and neat dovetailings. What elevates artifice into art is a genuineness of expression and a sincerity that cannot simply be invented, but must be discovered and conveyed; Vaan Hogue leads her fine cast to this level of artistic expression, and lets them play. The result is a gripping and fully realized theatrical experience that brings its source material to life. Boston audiences are bound to love this play.

"The Kite Runner" continues through Sept. 30 at the New Repertory Theatre’s Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.

For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.newrep.org/charlesmosesian.php

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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