For artist Hamid Rahmanian, whose works have been seen at film festivals around the world, the glorious shadow-puppet play, titled “Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic,” was an arduous endeavor that required 18-hour days totaling two years, not to mention all-important funding, to manifest. Nonetheless, it was a risk well worth taking, given that the engrossing show, which is produced by Mark Amin and is a collaboration with expert puppeteer Larry Reed and ShadowLight Productions, has toured the globe and played to sold-out crowds. Currently, it can be experienced at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, CA, through October 29th.
The unique 70-minute production, which is followed by a fascinating 20-minute behind-the-scenes Q&A, spotlights the creation, design, and direction by the multiskilled Rahmanian, who has ingeniously adapted and modernized the 60,000 verses of the epic poem, “Shahnameh” (“The Book of Kings” in English) by his legendary countryman, the 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi. The shadow play is part of “The Shahnameh Project,” where it is joined and especially inspired by Rahmanian’s previously released 600-page illustrated tome, “Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings.” A 13-hour audio book, and a soon-to-be-released pop-up book also comprise the project, which is aimed at both entertaining and educating individuals of all ages and ethnicities, who are apt to not only appreciate an integral element of Iran’s 6,000-year-old legacy, but be exposed to a literary and historical masterpiece that transcends borders.
The account within “Shahnameh” that Rahmanian particularly focuses on is the “Feathers of Fire” tale that chronicles the life of the great warrior-to-be and ruler, Zaul. He is the progeny of Saum, a respected knight of the Persian empire, who initially abandons Zaul to the wilderness because his son is born with unusual white hair. Zaul is then raised by the matronly magical bird, Simorgh, prior to reuniting with his father, and falling in love with the beautiful Princess of Kabul, Rudabeh, who is the daughter of Mehrab, the Governor, and his wife, Sindokh. However, because Rudabeh is a descendant of the dishonorable Serpent Clan, the King of Persia forbids her union with Zaul. And so, the play culminates in a race against time, as Zaul traverses the ocean by boat to beseech the King before Mehrab, out of fear of reprisal, forever casts his daughter off to the “Valley of No Return.”
To provide the illusion of a live-action narrative framed by 158 animated backgrounds, actors perform behind a 15×30 movie theater-esque screen, navigating their 16 masks/costumes (made by Dina Zarif) and 160 puppets (made by Neda Kazemifar and Spica Wobbe) through and around two sources of light orchestrated by Mohammad Talani. Portraying and/or voicing the slew of characters are Aureen Almario, Charlie Varon, Ryan Tasker, Marc Thompson, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Ya Wen Chien, Gabriela Garcia, Ariel Lauryn, Rose Nisker, Jon Riddleberger, Lorna Velasco, Fred C. Riley III (also the assistant director), and the aforementioned Dina Zarif.
In addition to carrying out the physical traits and vocalizations demanded of their parts, the performers – many of whom are clad in headgear and translucent color pieces – exhibit an astounding precision and timing that have no margin for error. As a well-oiled collective, they invariably have an expert understanding of perspective and depth perception, knowing exactly where to stand with respect to the backstage rays of light, in order to appear bigger (closer proximity to light) or smaller (further out from light) onscreen.
As the troupe is quickly maneuvering themselves relative to the light and each other, they are also getting a full-body workout by running, galloping, climbing, flapping their arms (to appear like they’re flying), and more, amid a myriad of scene transitions and fade-outs. And yet, impressively through it all, the performers are fluid in how they manipulate themselves and their cut-out puppets, never once misstepping or faltering. For the audience, the images are as sharp as 4K, featuring a cornucopia of black-and-white and cel-shaded colors that poetically intermix and interact along an ostensibly endless plane of canvas. For instance, when Zaul courageously negotiates the perilous sea to try to get to the King of Persia, we are immersed in the suspense of it all, insofar that our imaginations align with the creativity of the expression, whereupon we yield ourselves to the visuals, as we can feel the protagonist’s struggle vis-à-vis the calamity of the rolling waves.
It, moreover, helps that, as the stakes unfold, we are aurally transported to antiquity, thanks to Loga Ramin Torkian and his wife Azam Ali, who composed the captivating original score. Their use of percussive beats and tempo are contemporary-sounding, while also being an ode to yesteryear. Their musical choices complement the characters and their motivations, ratcheting emotional responses during gripping moments, and, at other times, putting audience members at ease with folkloric Persian jingles.
Every painstaking element is part and parcel of what has become of Rahmanian’s detailed vision, which has involved making Ferdowsi’s illustrious “Shahnameh” accessible for the first time to newer generations, while re-introducing it to older ones via a tremendously underrated performance medium.