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Theater review: ‘Nassim’ tantalizes as it grapples with the spaces beyond words

Nassim Soleimanpour's play, written by a native Farsi speaker, deals with the difficulties of understanding a different language and invites chance into the game with a new, unrehearsed actor in each performance.

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Nassim Soleimanpour in his play “Nassim.” Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

A collaboration between Boom Arts and Portland Center Stage has brought an intriguing theatrical invitation to Portland. The conceit of the production, titled Nassim, counsels against spoiling the experience with too much information—so my goal is to communicate enough to intrigue readers into accepting the invitation.

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour has self-titled the production, which subtly invites us to taste tiny cherry-tomato-sized bits of the disorientation he experiences as an outsider entering spaces where he mainly communicates in a language not his own. I’m no expert, but I understand Farsi to be a beautiful language rich in poetry. It is not hard to sense how sorrowful it would be for a playwright—an avocation grounded in language—to lack the experience of producing plays in his native language in his home country.

Soleimanpour currently lives in Berlin, and his plays have been translated into more than 30 languages and performed in more than 50 countries around the world. His 2010 play White Rabbit Red Rabbit played around the world to critical praise, and shares with Nassim a central conceit: Each night a single actor performs the play with no rehearsal, seeing the script for the first time on stage. There are some differences—including how the playwright himself participates in Nassim, eventually appearing on stage with the guest performer. In this play, the playwright is inviting the guest performer, and the audience, into a dance of empathy and connection.

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Image courtesy Portland Center Stage.

To describe more would take away from the experience the production aims to create—but suffice it to say that you are in good hands. Portland Center Stage has published a list of the local performers who will participate in the production that may make you wish you could come to every show, as the play will shift each night with each performer’s response to what the show asks of them. Portland actor and theater-maker Charles Grant was on stage the night I attended, gamely bringing his characteristic joy, and the production allows for individual artistic instincts to shine through.

In this work of theater, the playwright has found a way to invite us very gently into the challenge of navigating difference from the standpoint of the outsider. It’s Soleimanpour’s play; he has the most say over what happens on stage, so in that sense he has the power here. But most of what is said has been translated from Farsi into English, with the attendant and inherent losses in the act of translation. 

We and the guest performer speak bits of Farsi, to the playwright’s silent approval; he listens to us speak in a language that we don’t understand, with the inevitable errors in pronunciation and inflection, reading Persian words in our alphabet rather than in the Persian alphabet.  Like any immigrant speaking in a new language, we are back in the position of a small child learning to read and speak the simplest of concepts, regardless of the depths of expression we may be capable of accomplishing on our native turf.

Actor Hannah Rice, unrehearsed, performs in “Nassim.” Photo: Simsshot

The playwright and player Soleimanpour holds us there, with the guest performer taking the bulk of the gently held risks.  Perhaps you will leave encouraged to reflect on the depths you may be missing in listening to the halting attempts of an outsider enter a space entirely on your terms. Perhaps you will leave with a bit of longing to understand the poetry you missed in the translations from Farsi to English.  Perhaps you will marvel at the ease with which connection can be made despite awkwardness, especially when vulnerability is shared. 

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Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

Perhaps you, like me and many audience members around me, will be moved to tears without a full explanation of what inspired them. Perhaps the experience of Nassim can help us see that language is a help, but is rarely if ever what gets us all the way to connection and solidarity.

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Nassim

  • Written and performed by Nassim Soleimanpour, with a different unrehearsed actor at each performance.
  • Produced by: Boom Arts and Portland Center Stage.
  • Where: Ellyn Bye Studio, The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Portland.
  • Continues: Through May 12.
  • Tickets and Schedule: Information here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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