Wednesday, March 18, 2015

'The Mecca Tales' Takes Viewers--of Any Background & Beliefs--on a Rewarding, Recognizable Journey -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Mecca Tales
a world premiere play by Rohina Malik
Chicago Dramatists
Thru April 12

It might be easy to think that I am lavishing praise on The Mecca Tales because I recently interviewed and profiled its author, and admire Rohina Malik for the messages of peace, understanding and commonality she aims to impart.

And in full candor, it may be true that some of this factors into my rating the play @@@@1/2 rather than @@@@, for I might have bestowed @@@@1/4 if Seth Saith precedent allowed for it. But I have no compunction in rounding up rather than down given my appreciation for not only the play but the playwright.

Although Malik's previous, self-performed 45-minute play, Unveiled, is a substantive, impressive piece that she continues to present across the U.S., The Mecca Tales is her first professional, full-cast work to be produced. And though years of development--first with Goodman Theatre's Playwrights Unit and then at Chicago Dramatists--have resulted in a highly watchable, enjoyable, identifiable and affecting play, there are ways I can envision it and/or Malik's future plays becoming just a bit more potent in terms of narrative tension.

That said, I acutely liked The Mecca Tales more than many higher profile works by well-established playwrights that I've seen at Goodman, Steppenwolf and other large, prestigious Chicago theaters. In fact, a quick perusal of my shows-seen database and memory banks indicates that I've seen 34 Tony Award-nominated plays in the 21st century--most in subsequent Chicago productions rather than on Broadway--and I enjoyed The Mecca Tales more than the majority of these.

So even with any possible favoritism points, I genuinely recommend The Mecca Tales, especially as through the Chicago Dramatists box office or discounted on HotTix, tickets should be quite reasonable for a unique, eye-opening, thought-provoking play.

Given that the play is about five Muslim women traveling to Mecca on the Hajj--an Islamic pilgrimage--it should conceivably bring members of the Muslim community to Chicago Dramatists, where Malik (herself a Muslim) is a Resident Playwright.

And it isn't hard to imagine this roughly 90-minute one-act play being produced in many locales with large populations of Muslims--or simply open-minded theater lovers.

For to say that The Mecca Tales should appeal mainly to Muslims is to suggest that one needs to be a math genius to recognize the family dynamics presented in Proof or a Catholic to identify with moral quandaries posed in Doubt or related to a road-worn peddler to appreciate Death of a Salesman or an African-American to rue the inhumanity depicted in A Raisin in the Sun.

A great play is about far more than its sound-bite description. And though The Mecca Tales is ostensibly about the spiritual journey taken by women of a particular faith--and valuable for its insights into Islam and common misconceptions about Muslims--I don't think anyone who sees it would be unable to identify with what the characters share about themselves and their reasons for embarking on the Hajj.

These include matters involving love, longing, spouses, parents, children, career paths, aspirations, regrets, death, depression, remorse and more.

Helping Malik's universal themes resonate is an excellent cast under the direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith.

Morgan McCabe poignantly plays Grace, a guide leading four other women to Mecca--though I should note that this isn't overtly an "on the road" play.

Anita Chandwaney (as Bina), Celeste M. Cooper (Malika), Stephanie Diaz (Alma) and Susaan Jamshidi (Maya) are all quite believable in their readily distinguishable roles. It is a tribute to the actresses, as well to the deftness of Malik's dialogue, that the audience should leave the theater clearly familiar with the backstory and individuality of each of the characters.

I recently enjoyed Lisa D'Amour's headed-to-Broadway play Airline Highway at Steppenwolf, in large part because I felt it opened my eyes to the uniqueness--but also the universality--of individuals society often overlooks or lumps together with crude generalizations.

That The Mecca Tales does much the same with "five Muslim women," four of roughly the same age, is all the more impressive. Considerable credit in this regard likely also goes to costume designer Courtney Schum.

As the sole male in the cast aside from an onstage musician (Coren Warden), Derek Garza is superb in embodying a number of men in addition to his primary role as Reza, a local tour liaison. 

Within the relatively intimate confines of the Chicago Dramatists' theater--in which it was nice to see most of the 70 or so seats filled on Sunday afternoon--Regina Garcia's static, somewhat interpretive set design is satisfying. Future troupes that may stage this work should be able to do so on a smallish footprint given that it succeeds largely through the characterizations.

That said, I think The Mecca Tales is a play that could benefit from more literal scenery a good bit grander, especially as the metaphorical sense of a pilgrimage is somewhat abridged by the tight stage.

But having spoken with Rohina Malik just two days before I saw The Mecca Tales, I imagine that in addition to being deservedly proud of this play and production, she would embrace the idea that her work--whether in the micro or macro sense--will only improve as she continues to develop her craft and presumably sees The Mecca Tales presented and interpreted by other theatrical bodies.

Which isn't at all to knock Chicago Dramatists. Through a friend, I've long been familiar with the theatrical training organization that has been nurturing playwrights for 36 years, and am delighted that after a spell of somewhat sporadic public productions, The Mecca Tales does proud everyone involved.

I hope anyone thinking of seeing it makes the pilgrimage to the intersection of Chicago & Milwaukee Avenues before April 12--and I can't help thinking that venturing to The Mecca Tales may be most valuable to those who presume it not to be for them.

Especially endearing to me given what I heard from Rohina Malik and shared in my profile of her, the drama sharply addresses how the actions of a few have misconstrued the tenets of Islam as practiced by billions of peaceful followers.

It was thus powerful to hear such lines as:

"The actions of the extremists contradicts the faith"


"Judgment is for God alone" well as nuggets of more universal wisdom, like:  

"Life is a gift, open it"


"We decide if they crush our spirits, not them."

But The Mecca Tales also has quite a bit of humor, and perhaps best proving the reach of its ecumenical appeal is likely my favorite line--the context of which I'll leave for you to encounter:

"Bagels make me fall asleep."

Whatever you consider holy, or holey, I'd like to believe you will find The Mecca Tales wholly worthwhile.

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