Eastern Michigan University’s theatre department will present two plays in March. Professor Pirooz Aghssa, who was born in Iran but has lived in the U.S. since the age of sixteen and has taught at Eastern Michigan University since 1992, has key roles in both plays. The performance of “The Butterfly” will use his new translation of the play, and he will direct “Spring Awakening.”
Current: Tell us about “The Butterfly.”
Prof. Aghssa: When I was a kid in Tehran, Bijan Mofid wrote a play called “The City of Tales” that grew out of the boundaries of theatre and became part of the national consciousness. It feels like a children’s play, but it criticizes the system and the society severely, in a very humorous, and ultimately very dark way. Very like Brecht. And because, even under the Shah, the country was repressive, that was one of the ways that it could have a discussion going.
I never knew “The Butterfly” when I was still in Iran. It’s also in that tradition of a play that on the surface is a children’s play, but it’s really for adults. It’s about that moment in the history of Iran, without ever mentioning it, when there was the possibility for the oil to be nationalized, but then the CIA reinstituted the Shah’s regime and that was it. In the play the butterfly’s confined to this dark underground— symbolic of life in Iran— and is constantly reaching for the sun.
I found a recorded copy in Persian and I was shattered, it was so serious and so moving. But when I read the translation, I thought it was flimsy, it didn’t capture what I’d heard in Persian. I talked with Patricia Zimmer (EMU Professor of Applied Drama and Theatre for the Young, who will direct the play) who said, “Well, maybe you should re-translate it.” So I did, and it was an amazing exercise for me to put aside the translation that I’d seen and forget about it, and then see, when I hear the Persian, if I capture it in English, what it would sound like. I was not sure if the darker color always came through, but at the auditions for this performance, the people who were reading there instinctively hit upon the darker side.
Speaking of dark, “Spring Awakening” is no romcom. (Laughter)
Musical theatre has a nervousness about [being too serious]. Even with Sondheim, in a show like “Assassins”, “Oh, let’s insert a comedy bit because it may be getting too much.” But here they didn’t do that. There are moments that are lighter, but that’s because life is a combination of light and dark, but not because somebody thought, “Oh, we need a joke or else we’re gonna lose them.” “Spring Awakening” is about how the older generation did not take responsibility for the younger generation, which brought about tragedy. And I love the fact that as heavy as it is, it’s ultimately about choosing life over death.
The first weekend will feature a staged reading of Iranian playwright, Bijan Mofid’s, “The Butterfly,” then “Spring Awakening”, the rock musical, will open on March 31 and run through the first two weekends of April.