Seeing Shahrokh Moshkinghalam on stage dressed up as Zohreh, the Goddess of Love, evokes an eerie sense mystery. We think of honeyed speech and gazelle like body movements as female, but the actor in Moshkinghalam knows better. He drapes the goddess’ glamour wear over his masculine flat chest and judiciously sidesteps trying to imitate a woman’s voice pitch. With reddish curls tumbling from his head down to his waist, he appears as a mesmerizing, and oddly beautiful, not-quite-human entity. It is exactly as though a divine being whose true shape, feelings, thoughts or gender we cannot fathom has imitated human form to come down to Earth. To say that we know the divine purpose is to indulge in arrogance, but to our limited human minds it looks like Zohreh has taken a shameless fancy to an adolescent male mortal, Manouchehr, whom she desperately wishes to bed.
On one side of the stage sits a simultaneously amused and befuddled Iraj Mirza. He is composing the verses being recited on stage even as he is being henpecked by Zohreh to bias the poem to her liking. On the opposite side of the stage, a voiceless Cupid is busy on keyboard and string bass providing background music to this word-by-word recitation of Iraj Mirza’s erotic Zohreh va Manouchehr. In a fanciful wordplay (in English at least), Cupid clumsily, or craftily, uses the bow from his instrument as love’s arrow to pierce the wrong heart—Zohreh’s! At first, it appears that we are embarking on a Shakespearean romantic comedy of errors.
But the Shakespeare poem, Venus and Adonis of which Zohreh and Manoucher is an adaptation is not a comedy; Iraj Mirza simply cannot control his playful pen for the stubbornness in Manoucher’s virtuous refusal of sex and the tenacity in Zohreh’s lustful begging. Due to dissimilar historic circumstances, Shakespeare’s tragic Venus and Adonis in English adapts to a brilliant Iraj Mirza satire in Farsi.
Zohreh and Manouchehr is often lauded for its characterization of a female as the primary motivating force behind the plot. The problem posed by the story is for the woman to solve. The passive obstacle and the prize to be won is a male—a refreshing reversal. This didactic interpretation in favor of female empowerment is certainly one of the strongest angles to the work, but it’s not the feature that elevates the poem to an Iraj Mirza satire. Beyond her role as a female goddess, Zohreh represents cultural dynamism, which is obstinately resisted by the Iranian regressive mindset represented by Manouchehr. From this viewpoint, we can read more into Iraj Mirza’s verse than just a provocation to sex:
آنکه بود شرم و حیا رهبرش
خلق ربایند کلاه از سرش
گر تو همینقدر شوی گول و خام
هیچ ترقی نکنی در نظام
سبزه تو ترسی که گواهی دهد؟
نامه به ارکان سپاهی دهد؟
سبزه که جاسوس نباشد به باغ
دادن ِ راپورت نداند کلاغ
اینهمه محجوب شدن بیخود است
حجب ز اندازه فزونتر بد است
مرد که در کار نباشد جسور
دور بود از همه لذات، دور
Zohreh va Manouchehr transcends Shakespeare’s philosophic purpose in Venus and Adonis. Iraj Mirza doesn’t need to adapt any Western poems to Farsi; his literary imagination is perfectly capable of creating his own scenarios. He is simply using Venus and Adonis as an ironic metaphor for a construction entirely his own. The basic material is chosen from Greek mythology to highlight the idea that Iran’s seducer in this allegory is Western Civilization—rooted in a renaissance of Greek and Roman imagination. Zohreh va Manouchehr is Iraj Mirza’s last will and testament to the Iranian nation, then, now, and in the future. In this appropriately unfinished work, our most awake Constitution Era poet compares a nation reluctant to break from its medieval past to a naïve and cowardly adolescent who won’t take advantage of the beauty and fulfillment that is being thrown at him, all pleading notwithstanding. The following verses drip with satirical rebuke to the nation:
میگذرد وقت، غنیمت شمار
پر خور از این سفرهِ بی انتظار
تازه جوانی تو جونیت کو؟
عید شده، خانه تکانیت کو؟
Moshkinghalam’s delivery makes the audience guffaw as he wrings every bit of bitterness out of these verses with his masterfully precise hand, face and body choreography rapidly commenting on every syllable. Each morsel of political mockery is encoded into his hilarious sexual innuendos. To say that Moshghinghalam is a genius is not praise; it is stating a fact. His leap of imagination in casting an actor in his fifties to play the role of Manouchehr is an example of how a genius—intentionally or not-- breaks with sense to arrive at meaning. The seasoned actor Sadrelddin Zahed wears rouge on his cheeks in an obvious pretense to youth. Our virtuous hero is not that young, despite what the poem claims, all the more emphasizing his tragic backwardness. Sadrelddin Zahed’s Manouchehr makes us pity the stunted hero even as we gleefully conspire with Zohreh to ridicule his idiocy. The misguided but innocently obdurate self-image as an adolescent elicits deep grief for this aging Manoochehr. Yet we worry that if we act to enlighten him, he may lose the quality of innocence that makes him someone so familiar to us. Yes, ourselves! We who pulled up our pants in a panic at the first naked kiss of freedom and ran into a dark past to hide the erection. This is how a good actor creates complexity in a simpleton.
Hamidreza Javdan fashions an amiable Iraj Mirza that we treasure so much we want to hold on to him nostalgically, and this time never let go. Despite his wit and wisdom, the characters continuously baffle Javdan’s Iraj. On the one hand his Manouchehr is pathetically, frustratingly, unadventurous. On the other hand, Zohreh’s amoral and ironically voracious worldliness could be dangerous to a mortal. Still, Irjaj’s unassuming mannerism and uniquely Iranian fatalistic humor never leave him. Like an exhausted father, the poet accepts his offspring as they are, without ever letting his pen lose hope in who they could become. During one of Zohreh’s monologues she boasts that as Goddess of Love she is the source of such artists as Iraj. Javdan’s touchingly bashful pride at hearing these words was strongly palpable even though he was projecting an emotion with no words to carry it. A tearful moment in the comedy. Subtle and powerful acting!
Cupid on keyboard and string bass had his hands full throughout. Some of the musical sound effects demanded by Moshkinghalam as director, require split second timing that can rarely be accomplished outside a video editing room. At one point, Shahin Yousefzamani’s keyboard fingers tried to synch with Zohreh’s fingers twiddling on Manouchehr’s lips. The musician’s apparent nervousness and obliging demeanor when faced with the whims of the main characters added another layer of comedy to the show, drawing admiration for his efforts.
The play was first staged many years ago but the Iranian theater audience was not yet ready to flock to it. The production is attempting a comeback after a long hiatus, in the hopes that this time it will be received with more appreciation. I sincerely hope so because, to date, Moskhinghalam’s Zohreh and Manouchehr is the cleverest Iranian theatrical production I have seen.
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