Performa Playbill: Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat's 40-minute musical pageant OverRuled is a vast undertaking. With 39 actors and 5 extremely capable musicians onstage, the piece was constructed with the help of two playwrights, a composer, a production designer, an art director, a make-up artist, a lighting designer, a costume designer, and Neshat as director. Despite this overflow of resources, OverRuled, at Cedar Lake as part of Performa 11, is miscast as a performance.
It's easy to imagine the luxuriously filmed, meticulously edited video Neshat could have made with the pieces strung together in OverRuled. Neshat might edit music, pantomime, small bits of dialogue and still images with her usual skill to keep the pace moving, layering the music over the pieces of action, fusing sound with a stream of diverse well-chosen images in which the eye becomes lost—the specific land, architecture, and clothing of Iran, which, in exile, she hopes to reclaim through her art. She would know how to take her groups of identically costumed extras, arrange them deftly in the landscape and frame the picture arrestingly with her camera.
The playwrights have sketched out only a brief shouting match, giving the actors little to do, no range of emotions to explore, nor any transformation to experience. They have one note to play throughout the piece. There is no plot to speak of. The four actors representing the "defendants" recite their heretical ideas (pleasure is okay, the creator and the creation are one). The judge predictably says that these ideas are wrong and condemns the defendants.
OverRuled is, according to the program, based on the story of Mansur Al-Hallaj, the Sufi poet and mystic condemned a heretic and executed by dismemberment in 922 C.E. He is not mentioned in the play. The contemporary dress and the program notes suggest obvious parallels between his story and the political situation in Iran today. Al-Hallaj's heresy concerned asserting the divine within himself and making other statements interpreted to challenge monotheism in Islamic theology. It is not explained whether the lines that the defendants shout are pieces of his poetry or whether the singing by Mohsen Namjoo, a respected Iranian musician who lives in exile, uses the mystic's writing as lyrics. Without subtitles for the songs, which constitute a substantial part of the evening, there is no indication of how they fit in.
Neshat is a talented filmmaker, but as a director of live performance, she doesn't do much of anything with three-dimensional space or actors. The entire production is staged in symmetry, both people and objects apportioned equally left and right: It's the dullest possible choice. There is almost no movement by the actors. Along the walls on each side of the performance space, ten men dressed in military uniforms sit in chairs. They stand up and shout a few times. In the center sits the judge, a figure who poses looking angry or shouts at the defendants, also looking angry. Behind him thirteen men dressed like office clerks in black trousers and white shirts do some filing and move books around. Two defendants are placed in wooden chairs on the left and two on the right.
Courtroom drama is a reliable genre because a trial naturally contains the conflict of opposing forces. OverRuled, however, is devoid of any compelling dramaturgy. Stretches of time in which the clerks shuffle files or pass books back and forth alternate with a short pantomime of the judge gesturing for a book to be removed, which is followed by a song not in English and without subtitles or another musical interlude. No tension is created or conflict engaged. OverRuled claims to put "the audience, imagination, and life on trial," but dramatically nothing is ever at stake.
Shirin Neshat, OverRuled, 2011. A Performa Commission. Featuring Mohammed Ghaffari. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.