Iranian Afsaneh Aayani is a prodigiously talented Houston stage designer known for her poetic, colorfully imaginative graphic sense. She has graced the stages of Classical Theatre, Main Street, Stages, A.D. Players, Houston Equity Festival, the University of Houston, and Catastrophic with searing wit and deep intelligence.
Look at her skewed Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sci-fi set for R.U.R; the neon-edged church arches for The Book of Magdalene, the sweet and aromatic Americana inherent in The Christmas Shoes, the dystopian future of graffiti-filled detritus in Dog Act, the stark, minimalist black-and-white unhinged interior of 4:48 Psychosis, the cartoon pop world for Black Super Hero Magic Mama, or the cold antiseptic look of cloning in The Effect. Each of her designs reeks of vision, coherence, and total command of the play's meaning. She's a master who works visual miracles on stage.
As a novice playwright, what Aayani has yet to master is play construction, pacing, and maybe the most primal rule of theater: Don't bore us.
Heartfelt in the extreme and immensely personal, the world premiere story she tells in her hour-long mixed-media Innominate, presented by Catastrophic Theatre , is so close to her, so near and dear in the telling, that she loses all perspective. This is her story after all. In her arduous journey from Iran to America, she gives us bullet points instead of drama.
She leaves war-torn homeland Iran after her baby, we assume, is killed in an air raid. Images of Picasso's anti-war masterpiece “Guernica,” flash on numerous TV screens used as backdrop, while the seven ensemble dancers mimic Picasso's upturned hands of innocent civilians who reel from grief. James Templeton's video design is ubiquitous and usually more interesting than what's in front of it.
I should mention that everyone except our heroine, the Girl (Natalie Nassar), is portrayed by hijab-wearing, blood-shot, one-eyed creatures. Faceless and impersonal, they are literal avatars of the title. A rarely used word, “innominate” means “anonymous.” However, these dancing cyclops unintentionally invoke comedy, like a dancing line of CBS advertisements from the '60s. Remember the CBS eye logo? That's all I could think of, other than an episode of Twilight Zone. It's not a good look or a good idea.
The girl kisses her friends and parents goodbye. In whispered paranoid aside, she's told not to return until the “regime is changed.” She flies to the U.S. where she undergoes an arduous immigration process, while the cyclops mimic bureaucrats who stamp and impersonally move her through the long lines, commanding, “Middle Easterners must go that way!”
Adam Castañeda's choreography is site specific, gyrating and sinuous, but little more than illustrative. His dancers (Ashley Boykin, Lauren Burke, Hannah Dunning, Cynthia Garcia, Stormie Holmes, Karina Pal Montano-Bowers, Chad “Lyric” Williams), even under mono eyes, are an uneven group, not as sharp as need be. Williams performs a poignant, if over-long, duet with Nassar as the memory of her dead brother who has died in Iran from COVID, but the dance numbers, numerous as they are, are basically an annoyance and eat up precious stage time.
The Girl's applications for citizenship are repeatedly denied or postponed; she fights through COVID; and at the end never does becomes a citizen. That's it for her story. The play ends as it begins. Followed by musician Hessam Dianpour, whose original music throughout is a highlight, she sings an Iranian version of “Greensleeves” (?) as she marches barefoot out of the theater – a woman without a country.
Is that it, we think? Is that all there is? Where's the depth, subtext, something meaningful we should know about her? Is the surface depiction all this production has? If this is a play by osmosis, we've absorbed nothing.
Do you know what I came away with? Aayani's fabulous design sense that perfectly dye-matched the Girl's blood-red duvet, her bed sheets, the pillow with her dress. That's the sign of a pro.
Innominate continues through June 19 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at Catastrophic Theatre at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Masks required. Pay what you can.