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Theatre in Review: The Boy Who Danced on Air (Abingdon Theatre Company)

Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri. Photo: Maria Baranova

The best thing about the new attraction at the Abingdon is the chance to catch up with composer Tim Rosser and librettist Charlie Sohne, artists with distinctive voices and the nerve to take on difficult, challenging material. Such gifts are plainly evident in The Boy Who Danced on Air, which is, in many ways, an impressive feat of imagination, delving with remarkable sensitivity into a culture that might seem bizarre, even repugnant, to American audiences. This sensitivity comes with a price tag, however, which we'll get to in a moment.

Rosser and Sohne have focused their attention on Afghanistan, specifically the culture of "bacha bazi," or dancing boys. These youths are sold by their parents to masters who train them to perform provocatively for all-male audiences; they are also farmed out as prostitutes. As Jahandar, one of the musical's central characters, explains, in a culture where men marry later rather than sooner, and where women are both revered and more or less held captive in their homes, bacha bazi exist to provide a much-needed form of sexual release. To Western eyes, this will surely be seen as a staggering form of hypocrisy, and under sharia law such practices are forbidden. Yet it has been going on for centuries, and, even under the punitive reign of the Taliban, it was, apparently, tolerated.

This point is important, for Jahandar sees himself as the guardian of a great tradition, a posture that will, ultimately, cause him no end of grief. In the opening sequence, "A Song He Never Chose," we see the young Paiman sold to Jahandar, who trains him in the art of dance. Paiman is such an adept student -- and also so fetching and sweet-natured -- that Jahandar declines to rent him out to others, keeping the boy for himself. Their relationship is a complex mix of abuse and affection, with Paiman coming to feel something very much like love for his master. The trouble begins when Paiman begins to show signs of stubble on his chin; as a man, he is forbidden by tradition to be sexually available to other men. When the inevitable parting of the ways is announced, Paiman is so wounded -- as is Jahandar, although he refuses to admit it -- that it is postponed. While many bacha bazi are thrown out by their masters, Jahandar, playing for time, seeks to arrange a marriage for Paiman.

In this emotionally fragile state, Paiman is thrown together with Feda, another dancing boy, who is owned by Zemar, Jahandar's crude, cynical cousin. Feda, who is used to years of maltreatment, is a much tougher, world-wearier figure. He dreams of fleeing to a big city, finding fame and security as a boy singer -- another, possibly less scarring, Afghan institution. Before long he invites Paiman, to whom he is drawn, to join his escape plan -- and soon they are sneaking off for private rendezvous. It goes without saying that the notion of two dancing boys falling in love with each other violates every social taboo. Although Rosser and Sohne work hard to conclude The Boy Who Danced on Air on a note of inspiration, they are intelligent enough to know that, with this story, there's no happy ending in the offing.

Rosser and Sohne lay out the situation -- with all of its complicated, contradictory emotions and tragic implications -- with clarity and without melodrama. Jahandar practices a form of exploitation, but it is all he has ever known, and he clearly struggles with his feelings for Paiman, which go beyond the usual master-boy dancer relationship. (Jahandar is married, presumably with children of his own; the book is rather fuzzy about where they are.) The Paiman-Feda romance proceeds by degrees and isn't idealized; it's hard to tell if they are in love with each other or the idea of escape or both. This situation is well-explored in the score. "Little Dance" reveals the joy (and power of a sort) that Paiman feels when working; it contrasts neatly with "For a Night," in which Feda actively works to seduce the members of his audience. "Kabul" lays bare Jahandar's long-burning resentment of the invaders (variously from Britain, Russia, and the US) who have laid waste to his country. "Play Your Part" finds Jahandar urging Paiman to follow the path set out for him, while clearly revealing his own ambivalence about letting Paiman go. Another big asset is Nejla Yatkin's choreography, which establishes distinct dance styles for Paiman and Feda; in one especially touching sequence, Paiman works at developing a new dance that doesn't rely on his right foot, which has been wounded by gunfire.

The big -- and possibly disqualifying -- issue in Tony Speciale's production has to do with the casting of Paiman and Feda. This is nothing against Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo, gifted singers and dancers, who honestly chart the shifting affections between the two boys. But both performers appear to be in their mid-twenties, far past the point when evidence of puberty would mean the end of their characters' careers. If these roles were cast with fourteen- or fifteen-year-old actors, audiences might be repelled by the calculated sexuality of Feda's routines and Jahandar would probably be seen as a pedophile. The choice of older actors might be necessary, but it also adds a level of dishonesty to what is otherwise an admirably well-intentioned piece of work and it may prevent The Boy Who Danced on Air from having a lengthy life.

There are other book problems, many of them having to do with a subplot involving Jahandar's plan to expose a local power plant as a Potemkin village to a CNN crew, most of which happens offstage until the climax. Still, there's a lot to like about Speciale's direction, especially the performance of Jonathan Raviv as Jahandar. Raviv, who, only a couple of months ago, was leaping around the Lucille Lortel stage, playing a centaur in The Lightning Thief, creates an authentically tortured figure, caught between his love for Paiman and the rules that govern their relationship; this production should lead to bigger and better things for him. As Zemar, Osh Ghanimah is especially powerful in a cruelly accurate confrontation with Feda, in which he systematically strips away the boy's dream of escape. As the Unknown Man, a narrator whose real identity is not revealed until the finale, Deven Kolluri sings faultlessly, but comes across as rather glum -- although, admittedly, it isn't easy playing a man of mystery for ninety percent of the show's running time.

The set, by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, is a rusted, neglected concrete structure incongruously decorated with dozens of colorful Christmas lights and pieces of earth-toned cloth; it makes a strong statement, underlining the characters' pursuit of pleasure even where wartime conditions have prevailed for decades. Wen-Ling Liao's lighting persuasively creates a pink-tinted hothouse atmosphere for the boy dancers, contrasted with strong time-of-day looks for other scenes. Andrea Lauer's costumes include gaudily spangled outfits for Paiman and Feda. Justin Graziani's sound design, aided by Rosser's tasteful orchestrations, is so discreet as to seem almost invisible; he also provides an extremely vivid -- indeed, upsetting -- effect near the end that I will leave undescribed.

Even if The Boy Who Danced on Air ends up as little more than a calling card for Rosser and Sohne, it should put them solidly on the musical theatre map and lead to more projects. Their talent plus fearlessness -- both of which they have in spades -- could make for an unstoppable match. -- David Barbour

(31 May 2017)

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