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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Fictionville Studio Presents SONG OF THE NORTH, October 20-22 2023, Ft Mason Cowell Theater,

Evocative and mesmerizing, Song of the North is a theatrical presentation like no other. Through the expert use of large-scale shadow-puppetry, creator Hamid Rahmanian vividly portrays a fable drawn from the old Persian poem SHAHNAMEH.

Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form in which the cast shadows of puppets and performers are used to cinematic effect upon the back of a curtain or screen. The audience sees only the images on the front of the projection surface, no doubt leading some in the audience to believe they are watching a film rather than a very-clever live performance.

Shadow puppets of Hamid Rahmanian's Song of the North.

Fictionville Studio’s presentation of Song of the North at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater is appropriate for all ages. This epic tale tells of a boastful young Iranian knight, Bijan, whose extreme vanity causes him to risk entering enemy territory. There he meets a self-assured and impressively skilled princess, whose enchanting songs can literally hypnotize men. Bijan and Princess Manijeh fall in love. Unfortunately, her father, the king, will not accept an adversary’s knight as his daughter’s paramour. The king sends Bijan to live out his days chained inside a pit of despair. Manijeh stands up to her father in support of her true love and is thusly disowned. Her courage and skills serve her well as she becomes a beggar in service to her goal of keeping Bijan alive. I won’t give away more of the story, but suffice it to say that we see characters display bravery and perseverance. But we also see characters learn the power of humility, compassion and self-sacrifice.

Rahmanian and his team of nine actors utilize 500 handmade puppets, and more than 200 silhouette set-pieces to render a colorful and rich narrative tapestry. Unfolding in a distant time and place, the story moves between two wealthy kingdoms where we partake of their opulent festivities at which dancers twirl and musicians play. The original score is written and orchestrated by acclaimed Iranian musician Loga Ramin Torkian.

Large armies on horseback charge through rising and falling desert dunes accompanied by the drumbeats of war. Lovers stroll hand-in-hand through lush fancifully-flowered landscapes to the dulcet vocals of renowned Iranian vocalist, Azam Ali. Peace-offerings are carried on the humped backs of camels escorted by courtly colorful elephants. All these images are described in sharp black outlines within sparing illustrated environments which support the shadow work without overpowering it.

The five main characters are portrayed by actors wearing carefully crafted costumes and headpieces. The clothing features fabrics whose textures contribute to the silhouetted storytelling. The prickly edge of a fur vest plays in opposition to the soft folds of a cape sewn from geometrically cut lace. The actors’ headpieces are positioned on their heads so the intricately cut details of their characters’ faces replace their own. On screen we see the actors’ hand, arm, leg and torso movements topped by intricately incised puppetry heads.

A behind the scenes shot of puppeteers creating a scene from Song of the North; Photo by Richard Termine

The production plays effectively with scale; an actor looms largely over another as the much smaller outlines of soldiers on horseback suggest they exist in the far distance. The interaction between characters portrayed by live actors with personas which are fully puppeteered is seamless. The illusion is so complete that unless one focuses on the discovery of methods, one assumes all speakers are live. During the scene where the Princess argues with her father the King, who sits upon a throne, I was amazed to realize the king is merely a cut-out animated in a believably lifelike manner.

The large celebratory scenes with women dancing are particularly charming. The silhouette of each dancer features flowing hair and flaring skirts of multi-colored floral patterns. These dancers are mounted on sticks which allows the puppet-operators, behind the scenes, to make them sway and bounce and spin across the screen with buoyant ease. A quintet of herald trumpeters, lines of men with drawn swords, a row of knights carrying a log with which to knock down the castle’s door, move in tandem as they are cut from a single material uniting them as one.

To create the chaos of battle, a circular puppet is used upon which the outlines of fighters line the rounded edge. When the operator rotates the riders in front of the light source the experience of warriors arriving in great numbers is produced. Deep red and orange gels flicker over the screen, evoking a fiery atmosphere.

As we applaud the audacious efforts of the puppeteers, who appear for bows in front of the screen with puppetry devices in hand and character headdresses in place, we wonder at how these simple objects might be used to conjure such detailed storytelling.

Rather than let the mystery fester too long, at the conclusion of the curtain call, Rahmanian rewards us with a short video. It offers glimpses of how the actors and puppeteers work together in relationship to the light from a single film projector to produce complicated layered scenes. No doubt several young audience members will be inspired to go home and make a shadow theater of their own.

Behind the scenes shot of actors creating their shadow likenesses in Song of the North; Photo by Richard Termine

In present day Iran, women’s rights are greatly limited. In recent years, women and girls have courageously and peacefully demonstrated to regain their fundamental rights. Globally, artists have been creating work in solidarity with this Women, Life, Freedom movement. Local dance artists Sherene Melania and Parya Saberi have each added their artistic voices in support. As the centerpiece of Presidio Dance Theatre’s 25th Anniversary, Melania created Unbreakable, a contemporary dance about a woman imprisoned in Iran for improper hijab wearing. Saberi offered an array of performance installations merging traditional Persian dance and musical forms with contemporary themes in tribute to the protestors. Song of the North with its strong female role-model is another wonderful note in the collective song of solidarity.

Review by Jen Norris, published October 21, 2023


Production Credits

Song of the North

Created, Designed and Directed by Hamid Rahmanian Producer: Melissa Hibbard Script written by Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard Based of the love story of Bijan and Manijeh from the Shahnameh Original Score written & orchestrated by Loga Ramin Torkian Featuring Vocalist: Azam Ali

Ensemble: Ray Dondero Sam Jay Gold Harrison Greene J Hann Esme Roszel Sarah Walsh Clay Westman, Christopher Williams Voice Actors: Mark Thompson, Christina Calph, Richard Epcar, and Rose Nisker Stage Manager: Mo Talani Company Manager: Ray Dondero

Booking Agent: Laura Colby - Elsie Management

Cast of Major Characters (in order of appearance) Rostam: Performance by Sam Jay Gold Manijeh: Performance by Sarah Walsh Bijan: Performance by Clay Westman Gorgin: Performance by Harrison Greene Simorgh: Performance by J Hann

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