One of the pleasures of attending the Prague Fringe Festival over the years is watching new and exciting performers bring their talent, skill, and creativity to the stage. While not all shows are created equal, it is no less a pleasure to be a part of the audience. Of course, some shows are of such quality as to raise the bar not only for the Fringe but, for all to performances to come; ‘City of Lions and Gods’ is such a show.
Coming from Atlanta, Georgia in The United States, this award-wining play explores the parallel tensions and passions that lie not only in the heart of two very different couples, but in the tenuous formation of Pakistan. Written by Phillip Justman, Henry Scott, Mariam Khalid, and Becca Potter, the text has rich, multi-dimensional layers that show how much thought and consideration has gone into a complex, and even contentious topic. While such a topic could lead a lesser skilled company into heavy-handed preaching and one-dimensional politics, Saiah Arts International avoids this with intelligence, richness, sensitivity, and smouldering energy.
It is this energy that allows the company to create a whole world, as well as a volatile chapter in history, from the simplest surroundings. With a subtle and stirring score by Piers Caldwell and dreamy lighting, our cast emerges from the darkness with a graceful, almost balletic motion. The village of Mame and Miri comes alive with an organic chorus of breathing and whistles, you can almost see the river that Mame dreams of, hear the life by the water, feel her apprehension. Vivid, jewel-toned textiles, hung in the background and adding dimension, conjure up the homes and surroundings of our characters to great effect.
Beginning in the early 1920s, we are introduced to two sisters, Mame and Miri (exquisitely portrayed by Miriam Khalid and Caitlin Reeves) who are contemplating their respective futures as the former begins life with her new husband, a well-off politician and scholar, Khan (deftly played by Henry Scott). The sisterly chemistry between Khalid and Reeves is not overdone or saccharine; rather it is touching, honest, and, at times, painfully poignant. Reeve’s Miri is a studied contrast to Khalid’s Mame, as she is still girlish and tempestuous into her married years while Mame, the elder, serves as an eventual intermediary to her future husband. Reeve seems to elegantly glide, almost float, around the stage in comparison to her sister, a solid young women rooted to her fate and destiny.
In Scott’s Khan, we are given a dynamic young man who wishes not only to change his already fractious country but, to provide his young wife with the means and education to aid him in his great work. The interaction between Mame and Khan is brilliantly done as we see his role not only as husband and lover, but as teacher, mentor, guide, and, to some extent, a father figure.
The scenes between them are not drawn out or contrived as such scenes could easily fall into that trap. Rather, they portray the complex, and sometimes difficult relationship that unfolds throughout the performance. It is not that we are given a loveless marriage, rather we are show how love, love of ones country and ones family, can be as explosive as, say, the formation of a separate country.
In contrast to the solid and steadfast Khan, we are given Groom, portrayed with an intense physical presence by Phillip Justman. Groom, while married to the increasingly insecure Miri, falls into passionate, almost disastrously in love with Mame; a love that is not, of course, unrequited.
It is tempting to think that Groom’s love of Mame is a stock cliché and appears without reason or incident. However, it is to Justman’s credit, as well as Khalid’s, that their love affair seems destined to unfold among the fire and heat of political discourse as well as Khan’s own increasingly diverted attentions. However, this love affair, like the play, is not typical or one-dimensional. We are shown not a triangle, but rather a square. Groom’s love and admiration for leader Khan is real and, adds another layer of turmoil for Groom as his desire for Mame intensifies. Khan, to his credit, cares deeply for his gentle sister-in-law Miri to the extents that the view wonders where is heart lies in later years. He, like the others, is torn between desire and duty, love of his wife and the allure of another, the reality of the present and the distant promise of the future.
If you like your theatre with heart and soul, ‘City of Lions and Gods’ personifies all that. Saiah Arts International will be performing at Malostranka Beseda until May 31st.
– Rachael Collins, Prague Film & Theater Center