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Nine Parts of Desire

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Iraq is one complex country. Nine Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo's series of post-invasion monologues by eight female Iraqis and one Iraqi-American, attempts to show just how complex -- especially amidst catastrophe -- one place can be. "I fear it here and I love it here," says one of Raffo's women, a passionate painter who has chosen to remain in Baghdad. "I am obsessed by it."

Raffo's play, which premiered in 2004, comprises some two dozen monologues, performed by a single actress; in this compelling Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre production, the nine women are played by Abby Ahmad, directed by Melanie Dreyer in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre.

Other characters include a charming Bedouin who has left two husbands; an embittered, older expatriate ("Exile in London for the intellectual is mostly scotch"); a British-trained doctor confronting the war's literally radioactive aftermath; a seemingly carefree adolescent; a woman, crippled and dignified, who gives tours of the former Al-Ameriya shelter, where her family perished in an infamous 1991 U.S. "smart-bomb" attack; and an Iraqi immigrant's daughter who on Sept. 11, 2001, was living in New York, with close family in Baghdad.

The characters number nine to reflect a Mohammedan aphorism: "God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." But while such titling implicitly critiques how Islam regards women, Raffo, herself Iraqi-American, sees "desire" in much broader terms.

These are women in a country that decades of repression and war has shorn of its men, and the terror continues: the doctor witnesses a rash of deformed infants and 7-year-old girls with breast cancer, horrors she attributes to America's use of depleted-uranium munitions. Yet Raffo's monologues are rooted not only in such (necessary) reportage, but in human beings, themselves complex and contradictory. The painter made portraits of Saddam as well of images of her own naked body, and suffered, in turn, for both. The exile "prefers chaos to endless repression" -- though while she experienced the latter, she is of course personally safe from the former. "The war," she adds, "was against all my beliefs, and yet I wanted it."

Dreyer's staging is sensitive and imaginative; Ahmad, meanwhile, delivers a tour de force of intonation, body language and emotional range. In New York, says Raffo's Iraqi-American, "[p]eople work out to the war on three channels." The line resonates not only because it makes palpable American insouciance, but because Ahmad makes us understand the survivor's guilt and sense of helplessness that underlay the character's outrage.

Nine Parts of Desire continues 2 p.m. Sat., May 26; 7 p.m. Sun., May 27; and 7 p.m. Sun., June 3. Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353

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