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Border crossing

Homebody / Kabul sheds light on Western conflict with Islam

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If Sept. 11 had never happened, Tony Kushner's Homebody / Kabul would be an ingenious curiosity that practically nobody would see. But not long after Kushner finished writing came the World Trade Center attacks, casting the play and its Afghanistan setting in an entirely different light. Today Homebody / Kabul is an eccentric but essential play that everybody should see to make sense of the new world disorder.

The artists of Horizon Theatre approach Homebody / Kabul like a team of mountaineers daring a Himalayan peak, using the utmost of their resources to master Kushner's deliriously rich language and cross-pollinating approach to politics and ideas.

An hour-long monologue by "The Homebody" (Carolyn Cook) dominates the first of the evening's three acts. The kind of quirky British housewife you can imagine addressing a ladies' guild, the Homebody is both hyper-verbal and self-conscious, using words like "suzerainty" or "nebulate" and then apologizing for them.

At first Cook seems to be laying the Englishness on thick, but soon you feel like you've known her character all your life. She digressively relates an anecdote about how going to a London shop to purchase some "Third World junk" for party favors caused a moving, perhaps mystical experience. She frequently interrupts herself to recount Afghanistan's benighted history by reading from an out-of-date travel guide.

The embodiment of sheltered Western culture, the Homebody makes passing mention of an unhappy family life, remarking that she and her husband take different brands of antidepressants: "I frequently take his pills so I know what he's feeling." Extolling her fascination with the Afghan city of Kabul, she takes her exit, and the action gives way to an Afghan doctor (Marshall Marden) reciting details from an autopsy report. It's a week after the United States bombed Afghanistan in 1998, and followers of the religiously fanatical Taliban have slain a woman allegedly to be the Homebody.

Her husband Milton (Charles Horton) and daughter Priscilla (a fittingly brittle Monica Williamson) have arrived in Kabul to learn what happened. But with the body missing, Pris resolves to locate her mother, dead or alive, and finds a local protector in a Tajik poet (Barry Stewart Mann). Milton discovers a different kind of guide in Quango Twistleton (Harold M. Leaver), a British official and drug addict who introduces Milton to opium. Director Vinnie Murphy's trademark shadow play suits the scene, where symbolic and literal landmines litter the ruined streets and burqa-clad women walk like ghosts.

Throughout the play Kushner delights in history and language that's both real and imaginary, providing a poem in Esperanto and a paean to the nonexistent nation of Pashtunistan. Imagining a mixture of George Bernard Shaw's debate-driven drama and Salman Rushdie's multi-culti magic realism will give you a hint of Homebody / Kabul's rhetorical reach.

Well into Act Three the play finds an emotional catharsis at the graveside of a major Biblical figure -- but Kushner keeps going, offering a dense discussion of computer networking and the Dewey Decimal System, as if deliberately trying our patience. One expects huge ambitions from Angels in America's playwright, but Kushner has his share of hubris as well. Not every scene needs a five-minute Ph.D. dissertation, no matter how superbly phrased. Overwritten and with an episodic plot, Homebody / Kabul feels unfinished, as if Kushner could still stand to prune it down and brush up its epilogue.

But the play's modern-day relevance can't be overstated, and not just because it mentions Osama bin Laden and the eerily prescient line: "They're coming to New York." It's difficult to name any work, theatrical or otherwise, that so starkly contrasts Islamist extremism with Western "decadence," and so deeply explores the Third World's relationship to the First. Finding humor, horror and shared humanity at opposite ends of the earth, Homebody / Kabul isn't just a play, it's a passport.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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