Voices of Iraq: A living mosaic at Seattle Rep's Leo K

Long after you leave the theater, you will be thinking about "9 Parts of Desire," playwright Heather Raffo's soul-shattering work, now playing at Seattle Repertory's Leo K Theatre.

Not because it's the most brilliant play you've ever seen. It's a good play - not a great one. Yet it is a powerful play, for what it doesn't say as well as what it does, despite your personal political beliefs about the current Iraqi War.

In the style of playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith, Raffo has created a living mosaic of nine different women, as she lifts the veil on what it means to be a woman in the age-old war zone of Iraq.

You won't see Raffo's perspective on network news, although more and more Islamic women are courageously speaking out about their plight. An Iraqi-American actress, Raffo based her play and characters on interviews she conducted over 11 years of extensive research. Although she starred in her one-woman play when it first opened Off Broadway, Raffo has passed the torch to actress Najla Said, daughter of the late political activist and scholar Edward Said.

Directed by Joanna Settle, Said deftly changes characters with a flick of a shawl or her abaya (traditional long black garment), a shift in body language and the modulation of the voice. Her portrayals range in age from a young girl to an elderly exile. But despite their stories about torture, rape, beheadings and genetically deformed babies, Raffo's women don't sit and suffer; they orate, denounce, lust, resist, opine - and survive.

Set designer Antje Ellermann transforms the Leo K stage into a war zone: sandbags piled up on a riverbank, pieces of walls left standing in jagged columns, huge chunks of concrete scattered about like throw pillows in a rubble d├ęcor.

Raffo's characters become pieces of this landscape of devastation. And like messengers in ancient Greek tragedies, these nine women recount heinous acts by Saddam's sons and soldiers, as well as the aftermath of the assaults by American armed forces.

Particularly daunting is Umm Gheda, who gives an emotionally detached tour of a bomb shelter where her entire family perished along with 100 others in an "accidental" U.S. bombing during the first Gulf War. She matter-of-factly describes the charred handprints and footprints of the people burned alive. "Emissaries come to see what really happened here," she emphasizes, "not what they see on CNN."

In another segment, a trauma doctor describes the effects of weaponry used in Desert Storm. As a result of depleted uranium in the environment, babies are being born without heads - or with two heads - and girls of 7 and 8 are being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Then there is the young Iraqi girl who just wants to watch Oprah and dance to her beloved 'N Sync. But when the power goes out, as it frequently does, her mother refuses to start the generator. So the girl talks about the night her father was taken away because of something she said at school, and then innocently demonstrates how to load the family pistol.

The central character - and perhaps Raffo's metaphor for the spiritual deterioration of Iraqi culture - comes from the notorious Layal, a free-spirited artist who found much success under Saddam's reign, painting his portrait as well as nudes of women. Defiantly refusing to leave her homeland, she now paints the plight of Iraqi women, a protest of sorts. The naked bodies in her art are always based on her own, she claims, but the souls belong to the women. Perhaps because her own soul has gone missing, mutilated by self-loathing and her sadomasochistic relationships with men with whom she trades sexual favors for protection

Hooda, an elderly, Saddam-hating exile living in London who suggests that it takes a lifetime to be liberated, describes the travesties endured by women under Saddam's reign. It seems his henchman tortured one woman by putting her 3-month-old baby in a bag with starving cats outside her cell while inside she was being raped.

Said poignantly portrays these nine characters with great sensitivity. She may still be finding her way with some characters, but she particularly shines as Amal, an obese Bedouin woman with an infectious joie de vivre whose bad luck in love has not deterred her search for a soulmate. She claims to see with her heart and not her eyes. But Amal's real search is for peace, although she muses that only men can really find peace.

Raffo's compelling one-woman show runs 90 minutes without intermission. But occasionally it feels longer. At times we find the cultural differences confusing, especially when the play's first character, the Mulaya, speaks. Despite her poetic persona, we tend to get lost during her metaphoric monologues about the river.

And if you're wondering, Raffo takes her title from a proverb by a seventh-century Islamic prophet. "God created sexual desire in 10 parts; he gave nine parts to women and one to men." It sounds as if Muslims and Christians share the same rationalization for original sin and male dominance.

Raffo's women ask many questions, but they deliberately don't provide answers. Audience members must find their own. And although Raffo does not promote any particular political view, she does make references to "Bush's War." And at one point, a young woman living in New York City receives a touching call from her relatives in Baghdad. They want to make sure she is OK after 9/11, and at the end of the call a woman's voice just keeps repeating, "I love you, I love you, I love you."

With the exception of a few warrior queens etched in history (Boadicea, Catherine the Great), women are not the ones who wage these heinous wars. But it is women who must live with the atrocities and oppression.

"9 Parts of Desire" speaks to our humanity. We live in a world of technological splendor, yet we cannot prevent suffering. We possess intelligence and reason, yet we cannot prevent the pursuit of power. We are beloved of God, yet we cannot prevent mankind from killing in his name.

At one point, the artist Layal asks, "When is this going to stop?" That is something we would all like to know.

Starla Smith is a Queen Anne resident. Before moving to Seattle from New York, Smith was a Broadway journalist and Tony voter.[[In-content Ad]]