The Vienna Theatre Project puts on Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What, where logos, mythos and gender intersect

Four actors and a director huddle around a table, poised over scripts with pencils in one hand and coffee in the other. There is a flush aroma, a black velvet backdrop and two relic stage lamps, braced in each corner behind.

Today is the first of the Vienna Theatre Project’s (VTP) rehearsals of The Who & The What, the third play by Ayad Akthar the VTP is tackling in as many years, after the success of The Invisible Hand last season and Disgraced in 2015.

Winning the Pulitzer prize for the latter, the Pakistani-American Akthar’s work often deals frankly with cultural identity and the Muslim-American experience; a big draw for director Joanna Godwin-Seidl: “(Akthar) doesn’t say that any of his characters are wrong.” Actress Saman Giraud pitches in, “(he) always makes statements and leaves it to the audience, letting people make up their own minds.”Godwin-Seidl remarks, “This is a kind of touchy one, though.”

Vienna Theatre Company
© Vienna Theatre Project

Post Modern Family

A Muslim family in Atlanta: the traditionalist, larger-than-life Afzal (Harmage Singh Kalirai) and his daughters Zarina (Saman Giraud) and Mahwish (Sina Pirouzi) live in the shadow of the death of their mother. Afzal takes it upon himself to find a prospective husband for Zarina: Eli (David Moskin) is a prized “white convert” from Detroit who comes to Islam via Marx and Malcolm X; Afzal finds him by impersonating his daughter on the dating website muslimlove.com.

The dialogue sets a cracking pace, living up to the piping expectations. The first scene catches the teasing, intimate banter between the “gimlet-gazed” Zarina and her “light and carefree” younger sister, Mahwish. While tripping humorously, there is also provocation, but not without insight and affection:

Vienna Theatre Project
© Vienna Theatre Project

MAHWISH: (From a text, reading, perplexed.) The eagle has landed.

ZARINA: The what? (Another text.)

MAHWISH: (Reading, then to herself.) God.

ZARINA: What now? (Mahwish shows the text to Zarina.) Dad’s sticking his tongue out at you?

MAHWISH: He just discovered emoticons. It’s so annoying. (Beat.) You won’t try online dating. You won’t let me set you up with Yasmeen’s brother.

Later on, the sisters discuss Zarina’s mysterious, yet to be seen book:

MAHWISH: Why can’t you just tell me what it’s about?

ZARINA: Gender Politics.

MAHWISH: Hello? English?

ZARINA: Women and Islam (Beat.)

MAHWISH: Like what, like bad stuff?

ZARINA: Not only.

MAHWISH: Well, I hope not. ‘Cause everyone’s always making a big deal about women in Islam. We’re just fine.

ZARINA: Good to know.

Vienna Theatre Project
© Vienna Theatre Project

Birth of a production

We see the emerging paradoxes and reasons for Godwin-Seidl’s reference to the play being “kind of touchy.” Not content with merely dealing with the cultural dissonance between (Middle) East and West, Akhtar goes even further: At the heart of Zarina’s research and her (eventually) published book is the much-vaunted question of why Muslim women wear veils: The story of Mohammed’s very earthly relationship with his stepson’s divorced wife, Zaynab. Upon reading, an enthusiastic discussion ensues, revealing each actor’s personal stake in their characters and the play.

It is a truly fitting cast: They have their own tales of being second generation citizens with conflicting loyalties and values to bring to the play.

Godwin-Seidl is beside herself having managed to find such a cache of actors. Earlier candidates had their issues. The role of Afzal was particularly hard to fill until Kalira winged it over from London. “A really hard birth this cast, but it has really paid off,” says Godwin-Seidl. Yes, indeed!

February 13-25, Theater Drachengasse