Monday, October 31, 2011

Completeness and Sweet and Sad

Karl Miller and Aubrey Dollar in Completeness

Seeing these two plays back to back made me think a lot about content and style in realist dramas.  Both Itamar Moses’s Completeness and Richard Nelson’s Sweet and Sad concern relationships, in more or less domestic settings.  Completeness is about young people, just starting out in their lives; Sweet and Sad is about a middle-aged family whose lives have been rocked in different ways by loss.  Both dramas are structured around story-telling and long monologues to which other characters listen carefully; neither are plot-driven or full of action or even conflict.  And yet Sweet and Sad ends by being about so much more than it appears to be, while Completeness, though in its own way sweet and sad, winds up being about so much less.

The Moses play, at Playwrights Horizons, fits nicely into the theatre’s menu of beautifully presented, consistently satisfying work by “new” (usually young) playwrights.  With simple but elegant productions, lovely, subtle direction, and top-notch acting, I’m rarely disappointed by what I see at Playwrights.  But Completeness made me think a bit harder about what exactly this bill of fare delivers.

The four-hander concerns graduate students in computer science and molecular biology making their way into new thought in their respective fields.  Elliot (the baggy-eyed, appealing Karl Miller) is working hard on an algorithm that will break a long-vexed problem of predictive data management in computer science, but in his spare time, he’s breaking up with his girlfriend, a colleague in his department, to pursue a new attraction to Molly (Aubrey Dollar), a graduate student working on yeast cultures and cell division in molecular biology.  Elliot and Molly’s various former partners and co-workers move in and out of their lives, as the couple dance around one another, too entangled in their own emotional histories to really make a commitment.

Thanks to Miller and Dollar (lovely and intelligent as Molly) and to director Pam MacKinnon’s unobtrusive but sensitive guidance, Completeness makes a compelling case for its characters.  They speak often about their work, in long paragraphs that delve into some detail about their various hypotheses and experiments.  That these speeches remain interesting, despite the often technical jargon of their fields, is a credit to Miller and Dollar, who makes us see their ideas as living, breathing problems that they’re eager to address and solve.  The actors make Elliot and Molly dreamy with ambition, so that their overlapping investigations and their collaboration in science and math become as sexy and poetic as their romantic moments.  In fact, their intellectual exchanges sometimes make for more compelling conversation, since Moses delivers through metaphor the emotional challenges they face as a couple.  Molly insists she needs to do more “screens” to prove her ideas; Elliot keeps hitting walls because the choices his algorithm addresses increase exponentially with each new addition.

That they’re really talking about their emotional lives is both elegant writing and somehow a slightly disappointing bait and switch.  I enjoy listening to smart characters on stage (especially women, who are still too rarely given the dignity of real work to address as part of their action).  Elliot and Molly think together in ways that become as attractive to spectators as it does to them.  But once their relationship starts, after a fast sexual encounter that they mutually manipulate into happening, Completeness too quickly devolves into a play that’s about the callow emotions of twenty-somethings, instead of about the excitement of the science at which they work.

Moses carefully structures their revelations.  After they grudgingly admit that their relationship might have a future, both Elliot and Molly feel compelled to confess their flaws.  Elliot tends to run from his feelings, once the initial excitement of the chase has ended.  His speech about wanting to preserve the wonder and mystery of that first flush of love for his new object of affection is beautifully crafted and clear.  Likewise, Molly meets his acknowledgement with one of her own, relating obliquely that she broke another man’s heart and in the process, broke her own, in a failed partnership that continues to haunt her.  She bemoans her inability to be a “clean slate.”

But why should this be Molly’s hubris and not everyone’s?  Who is a clean slate, once they’ve reached their mid-twenties?  Those two lynchpin speeches, then, provide an unfortunately misguided emotional turning point for Elliot and Molly.  While Completeness is notable for the emotional openness and eloquence of its male as well as its female characters, these speeches retreat back into typical gendered norms:  Elliot prefers the chase and Molly has baggage.  Even the play’s rather oblique ending, which offers Elliot the chance to act against masculine type, remains tentative, leaving us with the sense that while there’s hope, neither character has enough real gumption to break their already established emotional patterns.

So what’s it all about, then?  Molly says their whole generation is damaged, unable to complete the pass of real relationships.  The stakes seem too high, yet at the same time, in the play’s story, they’re also too amorphous.  What do either Elliot or Molly really have to lose?  They’re both well situated, with funding for their research, despite Molly’s earlier sexual relationship with her advisor, who proceeds to try to blackmail her professionally.  (Happily, Moses lets Molly stand up to this creep; she’s clearly a woman with professional courage and clarity.)

These aren’t characters in danger.  Elliot works with an undergraduate woman (Meredith Forlenza, excellent and distinct in each of her three subsidiary roles) who’d be happy to start a relationship with him, and Molly’s fellow grad student, Franklin (Brian Avers, also energetic and amusing in his multiple roles), doesn’t hesitate to kiss her as they work together, after offering what he admits is too much information about his own emotional traumas.  (Moses’s men are supposed to be as vulnerable as his women.)  Elliot and Molly will be fine; the play shows us that at every turn.  Why, then, should we care about whether or not they choose to be fine together?

Sweet and Sad, on the other hand, concerns a middle-aged family of brothers and sisters, their partners, and an elderly uncle trying to live within their long-standing emotional entanglements against the backdrop of the national cataclysm that was 9/11.  Nelson is specific about when and where the family's conversations unfold; the program notes that the play “takes place between approximately 2pm and 4pm on the afternoon of Sunday, September 11, 2011” in the “dining room in Barbara and Marian Apple’s house on Center Street” in Rhinebeck, New York.  Through this specificity comes a grounded sense of place and time, in which the characters spin out not just their familial and emotional ties, but their private sense of how their own traumas and histories fit into the memory and present of the more public trauma of 9/11.

Jay O. Sanders, John DeVries, and Laila Robins in Sweet and Sad

Nelson directed his own script for this Public Theatre PublicLab production, a sequel to That Hopey Changey Thing, which opened on election night, November 2, 2010.  I didn't see the first installment in what Nelson promises is a series, which I regret, having found Sweet and Sad a lovely, important example of how theatre can participate in public dialogue.  Although it might be called intense realism, conducted as it is through quotidian conversations, in one set, against the backdrop of a family meal in preparation for an evening out, Sweet and Sad speaks so resonantly into a notable public moment (the 10th anniversary of 9/11) that it seems almost Brechtian in its appeal to a thinking spectator caught in the inevitable changes wrought by history.

Nelson addresses private and public loss.  Marian (Laila Robins) has moved back into the family home with her sister, Barbara (Maryann Plunkett).  Both are public school teachers.  But Marian's daughter has recently committed suicide, for reasons Nelson doesn’t clarify.  The motivation for the young woman’s death isn’t as important as the effects of her loss on Barbara and the rest of the family.  Barbara tries to soldier on in her life, but her spirit is broken.  When she disappears from the family dining table, overcome by grief, her family whispers about how they might help her.  Her mourning is a problem, in a Brechtian lehrstuck sort of way—how might we address socially what seems only private?

Analogous to Barbara's mourning is the national grief recalled by the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  Around these two parallel griefs, the family talks about their lives and their choices.  Richard (the compassionate, articulate Jay O. Sanders, whose acting makes subtle nuances in a character who could be boorish and unlikable) is a wealthy Manhattan lawyer; his third sister, Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, lovely in the role of a woman who’s arch and competitive but continues to grapple with her own personal and public sensitivities), is a journalist who’s seeing an actor, reviving a long-standing but fallow relationship after she divorces her husband.

The Apple family, that is, are adults—successful (for the most part), white, middle-class adults, which makes them representative of only a small part of New York society.  But nonetheless, Nelson makes of their conversation a smart and compelling meditation on how we lead our lives and how we make our choices, the consequences of personal gestures in the context of a public still roiled by a sense of its own vulnerability and connection to world forces much, much larger than the very tiny units of family and work in which our lives play out.

Completeness, by Itamar Moses, directed by Pam MacKinnon, Playwrights Horizons, September 24, 2011.  Closed.

Sweet and Sad, written and directed by Richard Nelson, PublicLab, September 24, 2011.  Closed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Spiderman and Sister Act

Dangling in front of a balcony at the Foxwoods Theatre

After all the press brouhaha about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for these many years, and the vituperative reviews from most of the mainstream critics, I was surprised to find the show so benign when I finally saw it.  Thanks to Jenny Slattery, who’s a stalwart assistant stage manager on Spiderman, I wrangled house seats and a backstage tour on which Jenny generously took me and FS2 after a recent Sunday matinee.  We had seats on the aisle, which meant that Spidy landed by us on one of his several second act flying feats, and sat close enough to be able to watch the actors work while still taking in the scenery, which is perhaps the show’s most breathtaking accomplishment.

But watching Spiderman and, a few weeks later, a Wednesday matinee of the musical adaptation Sister Act prompted me to think again about the differences between film and theatre, since both shows adapt their stories from cinematic (and, of course, for Spiderman, comic book) source material.  Spiderman goes to great lengths and historic expense to recreate the CGI magic of the movies for a theatre audience.  But inevitably, all the cash spent on all those effects only manages to provide a few moments of theatrical exhilaration.

The flying sequences offer a joyous kind of fun, especially in the climactic battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, who fly above and beneath and around one another in a fast, dizzying, carefully choreographed scene of high-flying almost-interaction.  Jenny told us that in addition to the physical prowess required to pull off the moments, the performer playing the flying Spiderman had to demonstrate that he’s having fun in the air.  And it shows.  In an otherwise earthbound production, the flying scenes literally soar, and meet the promise of all the advanced hype.

What exactly is it that’s so much fun about those scenes?  Without green-screen technology to erase the fly lines, what we’re watching is a too human man hooked to a complicated harness.  The apparatus propels him above the audience and lets him land up on the balcony and then fly back to the stage, where he perches on platforms that lead him off into the wings.  Hiding the fly lines is impossible; in fact, it’s what the audience has come to see.

We’re not enticed by the magic of pretending—although in a way, I suppose we are.  We’re more attracted, I think, to the notion that no matter how fleshy our bodies, imagination and stage technology can still make them seem to fly.  Perhaps we’re there to practice the sometimes archaic suspension of disbelief that movies have made too easy for us.  Perhaps we’re there to see something as old-fashioned as an actor flying through an actual theatre to remind ourselves that live performance still relies on a delightfully quotidian sleight of hand to make its claims on our joy.

The rest of Spiderman, however, is mired in an unimaginative, predictable story about power gone awry and the young innocent whose ethics are sullied in his quest to right wrongs.  Since the audience is given little to think about—the dialogue is wooden and the songs, as reported, unmemorable—we just watch instead.  The inventive costumes and the cinematically styled set provide enough eye candy to entertain for the show’s short while.

But until those flying sequences, underneath all that comic book armature, it’s difficult for the actors to engage enough to project any charisma or spark.  Even the inventive, compelling masks designed by Julie Taymor (the show’s original director) don’t integrate into the story well enough to give their wearers anything to act.

That’s what makes the flying so much fun.  The actor might be tethered to those wires, but he looks so free, it’s impossible not to be breathless with pleasure while we watch him.  The flying sequences tease out the limits of theatre while putting them to the test.  After all, we’re not watching Spiderman chase the Green Goblin against a Gotham night sky, but against the backdrop of the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan.  And however it’s been retrofitted to seat as many people as possible, and to provide the scaffolding for those acrobatics, it’s still a mundane Broadway theatre.

As we turned our heads to watch Spiderman fly, we could also see our fellow spectators registering their delight.  In our 360 degree views, what we mostly saw was one another, faces lit with expectation and pleasure and a little frisson of fear, half expecting the stunts to stop in mid-stream or mid-air, as they’ve been reported to do so frequently on Spiderman.  At our matinee, the flying worked without a problem.

But the comparison of those few moments with the rest of the show seemed almost sad, as though compared to all that soaring about in the house, what actually happened on stage could only seem clunky and even faker than it already admits to being.  In such a context, even the wig-tape hugging the hair and microphones to the actors’ foreheads seemed quaint and kind of melancholic, the modern-day greasepaint that reminds everyone that the wizard really is just a man, and that some stories are best told in the form in which we’ve grown up loving them.

Likewise, in Sister Act, the only thing flying is the occasional musical note, not because the songs are inspiring, but because the performances sometimes rise above their melodies.  The cast of this movie-cum-musical is terrific, making much ado about nothing, really, except a pale, three-dimensional but rickety adaptation of an already dated 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle.  In fact, Sister Act takes great care with its lead, Patina Miller (who won a 2011 Tony Award for her performance), to steer her physically and emotionally away from Goldberg’s down-to-earth, rather hapless if happily sarcastic impersonation of the nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier.

Miller is everything Goldberg isn’t in the original movie.  She’s tall and willowy, and possibly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell underneath the 1970s-style Afro wigs and the impossibly long fake eye lashes that made her look vaguely cross-eyed from where I was sitting.  This production, like Spiderman, seems all about the wig-tape, which for those in the orchestra proves a constant and distracting reminder that the 70s were then and the 2010s are now.

All of which begs the question—why adapt this film to the stage?  And why, as the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett always asked of any production, why now?  And why set it in the 1970s, except, perhaps to lend credence to its barely nascent sense of race rights?

Sister Act admits to its own anachronisms, with its disco balls and its short skirts and purple suede lace-up boots and gaudy chunky jewelry.  But despite a visual motif that wants to keep the show locked in a comfortable historical remove, the performances—particularly by Miller and Victoria Clark as the world-weary Mother Superior (in the film’s droll Maggie Smith role)—bring a pleasant but jarring up-to-the-momentness to the production.  And that knowingness about the strange historical simultaneity of the project cuts the production down at the knees, as especially Clark seems to be winking at its patented absurdity.

The production begins promisingly, with a cast of mostly African American gangsters and cabaret singers gathering in a local mob-controlled dive bar for Deloris Van Cartier (like the jewelry, as she reminds everyone to whom she’s introduced by wiggling her fingers and her wrist) to sing her audition for her boyfriend/cabaret owner Curtis.  But Curtis refuses to hire her, and belittles her by re-gifting to her one of his wife’s old fur coats.  When she storms into the bar to confront him, Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis kill someone.  She goes to the police, where a sweet if sweaty young Black cop named Eddie Souther protects her by housing her in a near-by convent in an economically failing church.  And so begins the plot that’s been a popular culture staple since time immemorial—the fish out of water who makes the locals swim like she does and enjoy it.

Deloris and friends in the cabaret/disco act--check out the purple boots

In this case, though, there’s something unsettling about watching Deloris leave what seemed an African American community to go underground in a resolutely white nun’s enclave.  Although eventually, two of the “choir nuns” are performed by the African American actors who first served as Deloris’s back-up singers, the convent’s whiteness is stark and Deloris’s racial difference not at all funny.

The audience at our Wednesday matinee was mostly women, probably half of them African American.  I couldn’t help but wonder what they must be thinking, seeing Deloris become the butt of the joke for the white nuns.  Because even though their sad, off-tune, uninspired singing and their innocence in the ways of the world is supposed to provide fodder for Deloris’s worldly ambitions and know-how, the power of dominance twists the image so that Deloris’s exceptionalism becomes uncomfortably tokenized and disempowered.

Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act and much of her film work, became a master at a kind of subtly resistant racial commentary, usurping whatever interpretation might have been meant by her casting and using it to her own advantage to call out how her body and face were singular in the scenes in which she appeared.  But although Miller’s voice is powerful, her face is surprisingly immobile on stage, which makes the trademark Goldberg double-takes and wry asides, which delivered her resistance, fall flat in Miller’s performance.

Instead, Clark, as Mother Superior, gets all the best facial expressions, and uses them well to raise herself slightly above the proceedings at hand.  She conveys fatigue at the ways of the world as well as the ways of her church in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.”  And she rolls her eyes not just at Deloris and her un-worshipful behavior, but at the absurdity of the whole shebang.  And in the process, she nearly steals the show.

Deloris of course transforms the choir from a bunch of dullards into a glitter-clad, disco-balled, A Chorus Line-inspired bunch of Village People, which brightens the production and makes it irresistibly fun.  And the speed with which this adaptation moves means that it takes Deloris very little time to improve the nuns’ performance and to transmute them into a crowd-pleasing, money-raising spectacle.

 Choir transformed as the waif from Les Mis looks on as "Mary" in the background

Sister Act’s jokes are predictable but still amusing, as is the nuns’ newly invigorated singing.  Peppered throughout are amusing gay and Jewish jokes (Yiddish, one of the nuns explains to another, is the language of performers; and the couple trying to buy the church are two gay men who decide to save the order when they fall in love with the singing).  Sister Act is a lot like Shrek (the film and the production); it works on two levels at once, offering a different set of laughs for the queer and Jewish cognoscenti (and we knew who we were by who was heard hooting when).

The show’s penultimate number is a female duet to “Sister Act,” sung by Deloris and Mother Superior, which makes it seem slightly queer.  Ultimately, they’re the couple who reconciles by the musical’s end, instead of the straight opposites whom musicals more typically bring together (as Stacy Wolf—FS2—argues so persuasively in Changed for Good:  A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical).

Likewise, Sister Act’s representations of masculinity are savvier than the tired plot and retread film story would lead you to expect.  As Eddie Souther, Chester Gregory plays the self-effacing, aw-shucks Daniel Breaker role (Gregory even looks a bit like Breaker).  Souther, who knew Deloris in high school, always broke out into a sweat around her (hence his “Sweaty Eddie” moniker).  Gregory gets some laughs from drenched arm pit sight gags, but his performance is sweet as he both comes to Deloris’s rescue and manages to be rather hapless about his own authority.

Even the erstwhile villain, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), is defanged by Deloris’s proud resistance to his intimidation.  Only Demond Green, as TJ, does a weird, rather retrograde turn as Curtis’s stupid-but-good-hearted nephew.  Green plays the character as a Tracy Morgan knock-off; given Morgan’s recent homophobic remarks, the performance seems less benign than it’s meant to be.

Sister Act aims to be a crowd-pleaser, and that it did.  Everyone around us was delighted as they stood for the curtain call.  (“I haven’t seen anything this good since Jersey Boys,” one woman told us happily.)  But still, like Spiderman, Sister Act on stage can only point to its own lumbering liveness.  The triumphal song and dance numbers are great fun, but the production is filled with furniture and things that move on and off with the revolve center stage.  They only serve to remind the audience of how time-inefficient and laden with stuff theatre like this can be.

On the other hand, in one of the show’s best moments, Eddie, in his number “I Could be That Guy,” imagines himself transformed from the schleppy police officer he is into an African American John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, replete with white suit, high pointed finger, and cocky canted leg.  Walking through a sort of Skid Row, Eddie is surrounded by “bums” who, at the appropriate moment, rip off his police uniform to reveal a version of Tony Manaro’s dancing outfit.  And then as the dream ends, the bums rip off that layer to reveal his old police getup underneath.  His transformations happen so deftly, they really do look like magic.

The exhilarating, old-fashioned kind of stage magic, that is.  The kind that’s the best.

The Feminist Spectator

Spiderman:  Turn Off the Dark, September 25, 2011.  Sister Act, October 12, 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri in a fantasy sequence in Maryam Keshavarz's Circumstance

Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s beautiful, disturbing film tells the story of two Iranian high school girlfriends in Teheran whose growing attraction and love for one another quickly hits the wall of religious interdiction and oppressive patriarchy.  Filmed with a grainy realism, Circumstance is haunted by impending doom, even in its frequent moments of whimsical affection and erotic passionate.

The film’s opening scene sets the tone, as Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) stand among their young peers in a school yard, all wearing identical, modesty-imposing skirts and jackets and hijabs that barely hide the two women’s beauty.  Shireen slips an origami bird into Atafeh’s hand, a gesture of fondness weighted with the symbolism of impossible flight and escape that comes to define the girls’ relationship and their lives.

Although Circumstance follows the young women’s sexual and emotional relationship in the context of the Iranian theocracy, the film more broadly addresses the country’s human rights violations against women.  A pervasive sense of surveillance quickly becomes the film’s visual motif.  In that first schoolyard scene, after the headmistress dismisses the girls, we see Atafeh and Shireen hail a taxi to leave the school grounds.  Keshavarz shoots the action from above in grainy black and white, as if through the lens of a security camera.

The image conveys the intrusive intimacy of being so closely watched.  These images appear regularly throughout the story, reminding spectators of the omnipresent eye of the religious authorities whose word holds sway, even as the two young women seem blissfully unaware of how their every move is observed and catalogued.

Ata’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), serves as the family’s in-house surveyor.  He returns to the family fold at the film’s start, after an unexplained absence.  Mehran was a talented musician who’s given up his gift after recovering from a devastating drug addiction that’s left his father suspicious and his mother forgiving.  Mehran replaces his passion for music and drugs with religious fanaticism, surprising his wealthy, secular family with his new commitment to prayer.

Mehran becomes the vehicle through which Iranian theocracy infiltrates the micro-level of the family unit.  His post-addiction paranoia translates into obsessive spying on his sister and the rest of his family.  His eye supplements the state’s, as he installs cameras around his family’s home through which he observes their every interaction.

He also collaborates with the mullahs who become his new compatriots.  When he begins to understand the physical and emotional reality of Ata and Shireen’s relationship, he engineers a series of confrontations in which the morality police round up and harass the two girls.  Mehran comes to Shireen’s rescue in a way that forces her to depend on his manufactured generosity and allows him to manipulate her into an unwanted marriage.

While Ata’s family is well-off and initially protected from the authoritative whims of the local mullahs, Shireen’s parents were professors executed as counter-revolutionaries by the theocratic regime.  The beautiful, doleful young woman lives with her uncle and her grandmother, tenuously attached to the relatives who tolerate the economic burden of her presence.  Her grandmother adores her; a scene in which they dance together in the kitchen with a kind of joyous freedom is lovely, and contrasts sharply with those of her uncle trying to palm her off on another man by arranging a marriage before Mehran steps in to offer himself.

When Ata and Shireen are arrested on a fabricated morality charge, the cruel officials accuse Shireen of being a whore.  They belittle her and threaten to hang her, just as the state hanged her parents.  Ata is fierce on her friend’s behalf, and saved by the sage generosity of her own father, who bails her out by bribing the unctuous, dangerous mullah.  But Shireen knows how limited her options are without money or a father to rescue her, and becomes trapped by the impossibility of truly being free as a woman in a deeply patriarchal, religiously driven social order.

Because Shireen’s lineage already puts her at a political disadvantage, Keshavarz establishes visually how the male-embodied state holds power over her very flesh.  When Shireen takes a taxi from a party alone, the driver abuses her sexually, using her for his fetishistic pleasures.

Likewise, Mehran’s patriarchal hold over Shireen and his sister begins to leech away Shireen’s sexual desire and control.  Watching her degenerate from a powerfully erotic young woman who plays with men but clearly loves Ata into a sexually and emotionally subservient wife is one of the film’s many heart-breaking narrative arcs.

Keshavarz directs her two, fresh leading actors with subtly and respect.  Boosheri and Kazemy are lovely together as Ata and Shireen, communicating the stark contrast between what their newly matured bodies want and what their deeply constrictive public culture allows.  They convey their love for one another with small gestures that Keshavarz captures with simple delicacy—one girl’s finger curling around the other’s as they stand in line at school or as they walk together with the men who comprise their social lives; the quick kiss Shireen gives Ata when she breaks a car window to steal a shimmering handbag she admires; and especially in the way the girls dance together, alone in Ata’s room, before Mehran intrudes on their pleasure.  Their physical freedom, and the obvious eroticism of their bond as they dance together with delight while they watch “American Idol,” is at once moving and wrenching.

Ata and Shireen’s palpable attraction to one another provokes anxiety in the film’s spectators, if not in the other characters, about their fates.  But although Keshavarz keeps the threat of danger flickering around the film, only the scenes with the mullah and Mehran actualize the dire circumstances in which the women live.  Still, their lives are a series of close calls, each of which underlines the cost of female resistance and the gender hypocrisy of Iranian culture.

For example, Ata and Shireen frequent parties in Teheran’s underground, where young people dance to Western music, drink, do drugs, and experiment with sex in ways Keshavarz depicts as normal for 21st century young people.  But these rites of passage are consigned to private homes, which Ata and Shireen enter by pretending they’re going to sewing circles.  Their male friends, on the other hand, can range freely through Iranian society, without the sartorial or behavioral constraints that confine the young women.

Keshavarz also complicates the film’s gender politics by making Ata and Shireen’s male intimates rather harmless, suggesting that they are constructed into the gendered power of the state, rather than naturally assuming it.  Ata’s ostensible boyfriend at first seems threatening.  When he tries to have sex with Shireen—who soundly rejects him—he seems fully in command of his sexual power.  But he turns out to be innocuous and young.

He and Ata team up with Shireen and Joey (Keon Mohajeri), a young man who’s gone to school in the U.S. and has progressive ideas about ideology and politics.  Joey idealistically dreams of dubbing Milk, the American biopic, into Arabic, so that Iranians—he believes—will be able to see their own situation in the story of gay liberation in America.  He wants his people to be inspired to change what he, speaking the film’s title, points to as their dubious circumstances.

Some of the film’s lightest moments show the four friends trying to speak like Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, or to simulate the film’s gay sex with the right tone of voice.  Joey’s faith that his work will mean something is touching even though the film clarifies that it’s also naïve and finally, in the end, fatal.

Circumstance is at its best when Keshavarz more indirectly shows the oppressions of a culture in which binary gender distinctions are so determining.  When Ata and Shireen join Ata’s family for a day at the beach, the director stages in the background another family lounging beside their beach blanket, the mother in full black dress and hijab while her sons and husband wear revealing swim suits.  Ata’s father, Firouz (Soheil Parsa), and Mehran also enjoy the privilege to inhabit their bodies publically, leaving their own women behind with only a small backward glance before they run into the waves.

Later, when Ata and Shireen find themselves alone by the water as the men are called to prayer, they take advantage of their exclusion from religious ritual to strip to their underwear and swim together.  The actors perfectly perform the sensual thrill of floating in your own skin along the surface of the water with someone you love.

The action in Circumstance is oblique and subtle, as characters’ allegiances gradually shift and their commitments change.  After Shireen marries Mehran, breaking Ata’s heart, she creeps into her friend’s room to confess that she wed her brother only so that she could be close to Ata.  Their sudden freedom to be together with the legitimate excuse of being sisters-in-law releases their erotic charge even more publicly.  At a family party, Ata and Shireen sit beside one another on a piano bench flirting so seductively, only the culture’s profound disregard for women’s sexuality would permit anyone to misrecognize their relationship.

Even Ata’s mother, Azar (Nasrin Pakkho), is complicit in her refusal to see anything but what makes her life livable.  She’s glad for her son’s return and unwilling to acknowledge the authoritarian religious current he brings into her house.  Given Azar’s lack of power, the film suggests she can do little but use her intentional blindness to help her survive.

Only Ata, in the end, finds her circumstances untenable.  She sees that her liberal father will inevitably have to acquiesce to the mullahs to retain his economic, if not political, privilege.  She notes with horror as her father begins to join Mehran’s religious observances.

Ata understands her world will constrict even further unless she escapes while she can.  Following a dream that Shireen first articulated—and unsuccessfully begging her friend to come along—Ata bribes an official to let her travel to Dubai without her father’s permission, freeing herself into a life she imagines will allow her to embody freely the woman she has become.

Circumstance’s ending sounds a few false notes.  Perhaps Shireen’s fear of being hanged by the police is finally enough to force her to capitulate to husband, but in her final scene, it seems she has also, inexplicably, developed some feeling for him.  And occasionally, Keshavarz paints the mullahs and their henchmen as two-dimensional villains, when the subtlety of their evil is much more chilling.

Nonetheless, with its artful yet stark eroticism bumping up against scenes that reveal the unadulterated cruelty of an oppressive social system, the film is a powerful indictment of the disempowerment of Iranian women.  Circumstance provides a stirring, important picture of the crushing double standard between what women desire in private and what they’re allowed in public.

The Feminist Spectator