The Kite Runner has finally received the adaptation it deserves. Its Arizona Theater Company production, now flying high at the Herberger, trumps the inferior 2007 film version of Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel, thanks to a faithful translation by playwright Matthew Spangler and graceful direction by ATC's artist director David Ira Goldstein.
The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, a young boy from Kabul whose best friend Hassan is the son of his father's Hazara servant. The boys are inseparable and are expert kite fighters — Amir as the kite's flyer, Hassan as the kite runner, who heads off in search of a downed kite during a kite-fighting competition. When Amir witnesses Hassan's rape by a local bully (played to menacing perfection by Korken Alexander) and does nothing to stop it, he has the servant boy sent away and lives the rest of his life in regret. Later, the Soviets invade Afghanistan and Amir and his father escape to America. Amir marries and becomes a successful novelist. As a young man, he heads back to Afghanistan hoping to make amends with Hassan.
Both acts of the play are set against the tumultuous fall of the Afghanistan monarchy and the rise of the Taliban regime. Spangler's wisest choice in bringing this story to the stage is downplaying the ethnocentric Afghan travelogue of the novel, allowing us to connect with the more universal aspects of the story: childhood friendship, betrayal, the power of love.
Robrt L. Pela's Stage
The Kite Runner continues through October 25 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St. Call 602-256-6899 or visit Arizona Theatre Company.
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That isn't to say that Spangler's adaptation doesn't maintain the political conflict at the center of the story. It's there in a parade of often-overstated villains and in the narration, which fills in the history of a once-proud nation while telling a tender love story of two boyhood friends. And it's there in the rhythmic, onstage accompaniment of tabla player Salar Nader.
Act One belongs to Craig Piaget and Lowell Abellon, the two young boys who play Amir and Hassan. They frolic and laugh and play comic bits and high drama with equal style — a style that belies their youth. Called on to enact both pre-teen inelegance and impossible bravery, both boys are never not convincing. Yet it's James Saba, who in this first act plays Hassan's father, Ali, whose scenes are the most moving. He conveys, with a simple stance or tilt of the head, pride and suffering, fear, and strength.
Throughout this section, a now-grown Amir (played by Barzin Akhavan) narrates his childhood while young Piaget and Abellon enact it, a narrative device I found distracting but was able to forgive when, in Act Two, Akhavan took over both the role of Amir and the narration with such command.
This second half of Amir's long life story is pared to its essential elements, but Spangler and Goldstein have preserved the storytelling that's at the heart of the original — the playwright by understanding that this is a tale told by and about a storyteller who became an author and whose voice therefore must remain intimate, and the director by creating a fast-paced visual epic that remains lovely to look at even during its ugliest moments.