Iranian Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour Challenges Portland Guests With His Eponymous Experimental Play

The first preview of “Nassim” at Portland Center Stage saw Soleimanpour share the stage with Zia McCabe, keyboardist and bassist for The Dandy Warhols.

Nassim (David Monteith-Hodge / Photograp)

“Yeki bood, yeki nabood.…”

Around the world, stories begin with a phrase like “Once upon a time.” Nassim Soleimanpour, in his play Nassim, teaches the audience how to say it in Farsi, his mother tongue.

Soleimanpour began writing stories “to travel the world when he couldn’t.” Refusing compulsory military service prevented him from obtaining an Iranian passport. He first exported his debut play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, in 2010, with new performers taking on the story each night after unsealing a box. In 2013, Iran granted Soleimanpour a passport so he could see the play at the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane, Australia.

Since then, Soleimanpour has moved to Germany and created a new show. In an experimental format similar to that of White Rabbit, Nassim has unrehearsed performers act opposite Soleimanpour himself, and learn a little Farsi to tell a story from his childhood. Nassim debuted in London in 2017, and was performed in 20 countries within 200 days in 2018 before finally reaching the United States in 2019.

This spring, Nassim (a co-production with Boom Arts) comes to the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, with a wide variety of performers on the calendar through May 12. Among them are local names like KGW meteorologist Matt Zaffino and the iconic Unipiper, Brian Kidd. Also on the bill are actors who cut their teeth on popular sitcoms, like Reid Ewing (best known as Dylan on Modern Family).

For the first preview March 30, Soleimanpour shared the stage with Zia McCabe, keyboardist and bassist for The Dandy Warhols. At first, the playwright remained backstage, transmitting live images of lines for McCabe to read, as well as italicized stage directions, which McCabe would sometimes recite by mistake (prompting hastily scribbled reminders).

After emerging onto the stage, Soleimanpour remained silent, communicating in gestures. Part of the conceit was that just as McCabe was to learn some Farsi, so Soleimanpour was to learn some English. He keeps a notebook full of new words he discovered from cities all over the world (Korean and Spanish were visible as he flipped through his book, although he said he still wished to add some Japanese swear words).

In English and Farsi alike, the play speaks to the child within everyone. Soleimanpour would not be the playwright he is today without his mother’s linguistic teachings, a method that included having to eat tomatoes if he got a word wrong. Naturally, McCabe (plus some audience volunteers in one segment) wound up eating small tomatoes, with McCabe even sneaking one behind Soleimanpour’s back.

For an evening, family love and language learning successfully brought Nassim’s audience back to when they were all young.

SEE IT: Nassim plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, 7:30 pm Wednesday–Sunday, 2 pm Saturday–Sunday and 2 pm select Thursdays, through May 12. $25–$66.50.

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