Heart wrenching and gripping, this new play rattles Backstage Theatre and pushes boundaries in a story about life under the Iranian regime
By Liam Newbigging | May 25, 2023
Anahita is the name of an ancient Iranian goddess associated with water, fertility, healing, and wisdom. In Anahita’s Republic, the protagonist named after this goddess is also connected with water, and she swims, drinks, and floats around her Iranian compound in a bathing suit. While she is tied to the water, her brother, Cyrus, calls her a shark. She is cold and calculative in her ambitions, playing her brother and others to further the underground cause for women’s liberation. Even though she is named after this goddess associated with these qualities, Anahita herself is not a divine creature. She is strong willed and prideful, but she also has nightmares of drowning.
This play is a thriller filled with risk and nuance. The very image of a woman wearing a hijab, or the chador, can be controversial. Still, Anahita’s Republic pulls on and plays with it to explore the complex relationships and realities of women living in Iran. But the garment is not the only focus — it acts as a catalyst and a symbol, while the play itself is about the characters’ reactions to each other and their turbulent world.
Anahita is confident and bold, and Roya Yazdanmehr stands tall and proud in this role. As Anahita, she commands every scene and draws your eye every time she moves. Often, there is a pause, and the audience is left waiting in anticipation, captivated by her dominating presence. While her shark-like demeanour devours the stage and preys on the men, her relationship with Omid, played by Jennie George, shows a softer and more vulnerable side of her.
George as Omid is like a double-edged blade that manages to cut away audience expectations as each layer of this plot is revealed. At first, George is timid and polite in this role, appearing especially small on stage in comparison to Anahita. But the character grows in confidence, and soon Omid releases an emotionally charged onslaught that shakes the stage. George uses her voice and her movements brilliantly to tell the story of this transformation.
The two men in the play bring valuable perspectives that contrast with the woman and bring dimension to the exploration of gender. As men, Cyrus, played by Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, and Masood, played by Michael Peng, enjoy a great amount of privilege, which they often take for granted. But it is in the wake of these two women that these men begin to break down. While Cyrus truly cares for his sister, he is just as conniving as her and puppets his own world to his advantage. While he is often Anahita’s dog, and she has a great deal of power over him, he still often uses his gendered position in society to decide what’s best for them. El Fihri is a calm presence on this stage, but often it’s his calm nature that hides dark undertones.
Peng’s Masood portrays a heart-wrenching journey of a man who is utterly helpless. His cries, his demands, and his pleas ache with the audience. It’s obvious that he cares for his daughter, Omid, but the restrictions of his society convince him that he must conceal and protect her rather than let her flourish.
Playwright and producer Hengameh E. Rice and Director Brian Dooley have produced a shocking thriller that pushes boundaries on what can be seen on an Edmonton stage. It’s risky — with the discussion of gender, the chador, and politics — but its payoff ends with a gripping performance full of great tension and, eventually, catharsis. And we hope to see more risk-taking and boundary-pushing productions from Hengameh E. Rice and Brian Dooley in the future.