Nassim is an experience unlike any other.
Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour has created a script that is performed each night by a different actor, who has never read it before and has had no direction.
Soleimanpour was not allowed to leave his hometown of Iran until 2013 because he refused to join the military. As a result, he initially created the critically acclaimed White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a script which traveled around the world without him. It was performed in over 20 languages by a different actor every night. Nassim follows a similar premise but brings the playwright into the performance, literally.
Nassim opens with the performer of the evening, Carmen Aguirre, being directed to unseal a box with a script. A beautiful love letter unfolds before us, as we come to learn about Nassim’s journey as a playwright. Coming from Iran, Nassim has never had his words performed in his mother tongue and has only ever had the opportunity to share his work with the rest of the world from afar. His mother has never seen his plays performed in Farsi. This performance is his first opportunity to teach an actor Farsi which is later shared with his mother, though I will not spoil that moment.
Nassim feels like a poetic love letter; a love letter to the audience, to the performer and at its core, a love letter from Nassim to his mother.
Playfully leading his performer, and audience, through his words, Nassim uses stage directions to guide his actor. From his place backstage, we see projections of the 400+ page script and the hands of the playwright as he controls the pages. Nassim invites the performer to have tea with him, joining him on stage. This is the first time they meet face to face and he teaches them to drink tea like Iranian royalty. Initially invited to laugh, there are other deeply moving moments throughout this theatrical experiment.
On opening night the performer was seasoned actor, Carmen Aguirre, who did a wonderful job performing this unorthodox play, coming in with an openness the script requires. This is to say nothing of her seamless ability to learn some basic words and phrases in Farsi. The lesson takes place using a game Nassim played as a child when learning Farsi himself, where each time a word is mispronounced, the person must eat a tomato. Jumping onboard and sounding like a natural, Aguirre earned just a single tomato.
Following a series of prompts, Nassim asked Aguirre to tell him the most romantic sentence she knows. Opting for “I love you”, Nassim texts the phrase to his wife in real-time, who immediately texts back in Farsi “I miss you”. She is living in Iran while Nassim travels the world to tell his story in person. There are so many beautiful moments like this through Nassim, and though they are staged, they still feel deeply genuine.
Brought into Nassim’s world, through his mother tongue of Farsi, it is a poetic language to hear and an equally beautiful one to observe on the page as Nassim writes out the performer’s name and places it in the “director’s chair”. The play brings home, belonging, connection, and love all to the forefront and is a beautiful dedication to Nassim’s mother. Not to spoil anything, but it ends with another poetic gesture of love.
One of the basic elements of Nassim is to teach Farsi to an English speaker. While an interesting dynamic, many of the performers, Aguirre included, are likely fluent in other languages and maybe even speak English as a second language. On opening night at least, it would have an additional layer to have Aguirre share some of her Spanish vocabulary with Nassim.
Despite its strengths, there is something missing in Nassim, to bring it all together. The desire to hear a more in-depth telling of Nassim’s story, beyond just the pictures of his childhood and a simple story in Farsi. Perhaps the challenges in translating his story is revealed as Nassim states, “a writer’s heart will always beat in their mother tongue”. But while this may sum-up Nassim, the performance does feel too simple.
Still, Nassim remains a unique experience, and at times an incredibly moving lesson in language, love, and connection.
Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour. Directed by Omar Elerian. On stage at the The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until May 19. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.