Book and Lyrics by Charles Osborne
Music by Leo Hurley
Directed by Zi Alikhan
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“The Body Politic,” currently running at the New York Musical Festival at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater chronicles the journey of Iphis (Samy El-Noury) a transgender young man from Kabul who emigrates to Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the height of the Afghan War. This new life is offered by Chris, an American Aid Worker, and Iphis leaves his mother Roxana (Laleh Khorsandi) and becomes the Foster Child of Chris’s family in Chapel Hill: his wife Constance (Tina Scariano) and son Michael (Yassi Noubahar). Chris, unfortunately, dies at the hand of the Taliban.
Tensions rise when Iphis (who has completed reconstructive surgery) expands his circle of support to include members of the LGBTQ community, including Eugene (Asher Dubin) the drag performer who comes to dinner at Constance’s home dressed as a nun. The visit stirs up Constance’s conservative values and her difficulty accepting Iphis and the “body politic” he represents. This sub-plot, and several others, obfuscate the important story of being transgender in non-supportive and antagonistic environments. Iphis’s story is a compelling one but its substance is diminished by the writer’s concerns about the Afghan War, gender parity in Afghanistan, obedience to tradition, and America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The story line (the libretto) cascades between Afghanistan and the United States and is meant to show the difficulties faced by transgender youth and adults. The musical numbers are unremarkable and, although the cast obviously believes in the effort, their performances are often devoid of passion and lack authenticity. Zi Alikhan’s staging is pedestrian and lacks cohesiveness. Cast members move aimlessly across the stage and sometimes stand at length in one place while another cast member completes a musical number. Roxana’s opening number “My Son” is delivered with conviction while Eugene’s “Cowgirl Song” could easily be deleted.
The audience is informed in the program that the cast has both a character name and a “bird” name. Iphis, for example, is identified as “The Euasian Hobby.” The notes in the script and in the program indicate that “each character is based on a different indigenous bird of Afghanistan. These traits manifest in their actions, language, and personal mythology.” This convention simply does not work and, although some musical numbers allude to birdlike behavior (flying, nesting, etc.), the audience makes no connection between the characters and their “bird” alter egos. This critic remains puzzled how an audience member is to decide whether Iphis’s “personal mythology” is manifested in the traits of the Eurasian Hobby.
Written in the operatic style, Leo Hurley’s music depends on certain traditional Afghan styles. The results are interesting and, at first, refreshing; however, the music becomes tiresome: all of the songs in the six scenes begin to sound alike whether the scenes are in Kabul, Chapel Hill, or New York City. Andrew Griffin’s lighting is adequate. Overall, unfortunately, “The Body Politic” seems unready for the New York stage and will require considerable work to move beyond its current community theatre texture.