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From Abadan, Iran to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Chess with the Doomsday Machine tells civilian side of war

by Robert Devet

Onelight Theatre presents a stunning performance of civilians caught up in the Iran-Iraq war. Photo by Scott Munn 2014
Onelight Theatre presents a stunning performance of civilians caught up in the Iran-Iraq war. Photo by Scott Munn 2014

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - A play about civilians and soldiers caught up in the Iran-Iraq war, Chess with the Doomsday Machine, is bound to stay with you for a long time.

The play is set in Abadan a city in Iran under siege by deadly accurate Iraqi artillery, the Doomsday Machine of the title.

The action focuses on a few people who, for reasons of their own refuse to leave the ravaged city and a young soldier who is caught between military duty and his ties to those stragglers.

"We wanted to look at the place of civilians in situations like this, and not worry about the [politics of] the war, and the fighting, but really focus on what happens to civilians," says director and playwright Shahin Sayadi.

Sayadi adapted the play from a novel by Iranian author Habib Ahmadzadeh.

Convincing acting by the entire cast, music that's part of the action, an emphasis on movement, and a very sparse use of dialogue turn the play into something out of the ordinary.

Although the actors' native language is English, much of the little dialogue is in Farsi, the official language of Iran.

There is a reason for that. The play had to be accessible to both Canadians and Iranians.

The play premiered in Abadan, then went on to a performance at a prestigious festival in Tehran, prior to openening at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth last week.

Same Canadian actors, exactly the same play.

"I wanted the play to be the same for both audiences," Sayadi explains, "so I started taking away the language, just stayed with the story, and this is where we ended up."

Sayadi grew up in Abadan, so performing there was very special.

The play was well received in Abadan, Sayadi says, but the Tehran performance caused mixed reactions.

"There were people who were very touched, but others didn't really want to be reminded of it and talk about it, I guess for some it is just too close to home," says Sayadi.

Sayadi is also the artistic director of Onelight Theatre.

Onelight started out on Gottingen Street eleven years ago and has now found a permanent home at Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth.

Over the years, it has gained a reputation for putting on quality plays that highlight the voices of culturally under-represented communities African Nova Scotians, indigenous peoples, immigrants.

Sayadi agrees with that assessment, but also downplays it.

"I don't think about it in those terms, for me it is what I am familiar with, it is my story," Sayadi says. "For me, all our work is always about the story, always beyond an agenda.

"And I just tell the stories that I am familiar with. It just so happens that it is a story of many people, of a huge part of modern society in Canada, people we go to work with, or encounter on the street, and we don't know that this is their story."

Note: originally posted in February 2014 when the play first ran.

Chess with the Doomsday Machine continues at Alderney Landing Theatre

Play runs until February 7th.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert


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