‘Pure’: A courageous unveiling

Tahirih, a Persian poet, mystic and pioneer feminist who courageously challenged religious fundamentalism and women’s subjugation in 19th century Persia, is the heroine of «Pure,» which opens May 19 at the Athinais Cultural Center. Unusually for a woman of her time and place, Tahirih was highly educated. She engaged in learned disputes with leading scholars, arguing for a just and equal society. Her beauty and eloquence attracted audiences but her radical views drew down the fury of the conservatives. In a dramatic challenge to the status quo, she went unveiled at a conference of men in 1848. She was persecuted, stoned, put under house arrest and eventually executed in secret, but her message still resonates. And it makes powerful theater, as Kathimerini English Edition saw at a rehearsal last week in a tent in Athinais’s courtyard. Though the content is often grim, the treatment is not. Humor, as the rehearsal revealed, is central to «Pure.» Shirin Youssefian Maanian, who plays all 16 characters, did the original research for «Pure» with Jessica Naish, but they asked British comedy writer Annabel Knight to write the play. It was an inspired decision: Qanitih, the no-nonsense handmaid, is a brilliant comic creation whose lively narrative counterpoints the tension. And there’s much more. «The play is not just about the sacrificial death of Tahirih, but about a moment of enlightenment,» said director Judy Boyle. «I would like it to be thought-provoking on all levels.» «Tahirih was very concerned with people looking at the truth through their own eyes,» added Maanian. «She challenged the state and the mullahs, and looked forward to a day when there would be a new religion.» The tent brings a special ambience to the production. «It will get the audience into the world of Persia and the chador from the minute they arrive,» said Maanian. As for directing a one-woman play in the round, «it is one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced,» said Boyle. «There’s no hiding for audience or actor.» Maanian agreed: «It’s not intended to be confrontational, but it is challenging to be in the audience. The physical proximity means there is no letup.» The music by Karen Solomon incorporates Persian melodies; sets and costumes are by Maria Chaniotaki and the lighting by Eleftheria Deko. «Pure» is being performed for the first time in Greece by HandMaid Productions. It was first performed in London, toured the United Kingdom and Cyprus, and in March 2004 was performed by invitation at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Athinais Cultural Center, 34-36 Kastorias, Votanikos, tel 210.348.0000. Thursdays-Sundays, May 19-June 19.