Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, spent more than five years on The New York Times bestseller list. It’s been published in 42 languages and made into a 2007 movie.
The novel, which follows the life of a young Afghani from the mid-1970s until 2001, has resonated with readers worldwide, a universal story of shame, pride and eventual maturity, of the human potential for cruelty, forgiveness and redemption. It also offers meaningful insights into a nation and a people whose history has been a mystery to most of us in the Western world.
Now The Kite Runner a stage play. It originated in San Jose, Calif., from a collaboration between Hosseini and playwright/adapter Matthew Spangler, both of whom live in the Bay Area and worked together closely to make the story come to life onstage. Spangler directed a student production of it at San Jose State (where he teaches) in 2007, then the work was produced to very positive audience response by San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2009 and later the same year at Arizona Repertory Theatre. The work’s regional premiere is happening this month at Actors Theatre of Louisville in a co-production with the Cleveland Playhouse, where it will transfer in October.
Having read the novel and seen the movie, I wondered how effective a stage version could be. Actors Theatre’s production is an impressive feat: The novel is told in first person, so Spangler’s script uses an actor to play Amir (Jos Viramontes). He narrates the entire piece and brings Amir to life in Act II. In the first act, Jose Peru Flores plays Amir as a boy; Matt Pascua plays his friend Hassan in Act I and then Hassan’s son Sohrab in Act II. These connections and interactions heighten the impact of the story of Amir and his childhood friend and servant Hassan’s relationship, that of a dominant Pashtoun and a subjugated Hazara — whose friendship prevails across time, ethnic prejudice and vicious acts of racist depravity.
In fact, Amir’s effort to save Hassan’s son from a horrid existence packs a powerful emotional punch in this production, one I didn’t recall as working so vividly in the film, despite its realistic presentation of the story.
Of course, Spangler’s script skims many of the details of the story. Several characters (especially Amir’s wife Soraya, played by Aadya Bedi) are diminished. But the essential moments of the novel are present and effectively enacted during the show (it’s about two-and-a-half hours with an intermission). A cast of 14 play dozens of characters, from Amir’s stern, demanding father (Nasser Faris) to the persecuting bully who becomes a despotic Taliban chieftain Assef (Zarif Kabier Sadiqui). There are also Russian soldiers, a German-American physician, a prejudiced Afghani general, a Vietnamese grocer and many Americans. (An amusing scene depicts the crazy world of California in the early 1980s when Amir and his father escape there from the tyranny of Afghanistan.)
The many accents of these performers have been enhanced by coaching from Rocco Dal Vera, who teaches at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music; k. jenny jones, another CCM professor, provided the show’s effective fight choreography.
An especially effective element of this production, staged by Actors Theatre’s artistic director, Marc Masterson, is an accomplished young tabla player, Salar Nader. His “overture” and “entr’acte” are mesmerizing, and his percussive underscoring and punctuation in many scenes add profoundly to the ambience surrounding this emotionally told story. Nader sits to the side of the stage throughout the action and adds a wonderful, evocative dimension to the storytelling.
Michael B. Raiford’s simple but effective scenic design — a grill with an Arabic pattern that casts complex shadows and several moving panels — offers simple ways to move from place to place, inviting the audience to fill in details. In a few scenes, the narration felt hurried, not allowing enough time to move from one era to the next or to feel fully the impact of politics or cultural change on the lives of these characters. But for the most part, Spangler’s script captures the power of Hosseini’s novel. Viramontes’ warmly delivered narration as Amir — his physical actions and facial expressions often reflected those of the actor playing his younger self — made his presence most affecting.
The kite-flying competitions, an important element of the tale that could be tough to create in a theater, worked well, largely because the cast fully engaged in making it feel real and thrilling. That’s how this production succeeds, a sense of belief and commitment from the performers. It’s a story worth knowing, a play worth staging and a production worth seeing.
I hope that some readers of CityBeat make the effort to travel to Louisville this month to enjoy this fine performance.
THE KITE RUNNER, presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville, continues through Sept. 25. Buy tickets and check out performance times here.