Can The Kite Runner soar as it glides from page to stage?
“I became what I am today at the age of 12,” says Amir, the protagonist of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel which has now made its New York premiere as a stage play at the Hayes Theater following a successful West End run. It’s one of the famous lines from beloved, best-selling work, a fictional story that hinges on a crucial act committed by Amir when still an adolescent.
Later in life, half a world away, Amir receives a phone call from a distant family friend who delivers one of the book’s other signature lines: “There is a way to be good again,” the elder insists. The Kite Runner is indeed a good show – it’s just too obeisant of its source material to grow into a great one.
Told in flashback by adult Amir (Amir Arison, of TV’s The Blacklist), Kite Runner is a largely linear story. It begins in Kabul, Afghanistan during the 1970s, where his closest companion was Hassan (a lovely Eric Sirakian), the finest kite runner Amir had ever seen. Hassan was the son of Ali (Evan Zes), a servant of his father, Baba (Faran Tahir), though Baba has always viewed the two of them as family. Amir and Baba are wealthy Pashtuns, the ruling elite, while Ali and Hassan are Hazara, but they share at least one bond: thanks to death and desertion, women are completely absent in their lives.
An aspiring writer, Amir looks for answers to life, nary of which come from Baba, allowing him to view Rahim Khan (Dariush Kashani) as a surrogate father figure. While at home, Amir and Hassan can enjoy life on even footing, almost as brothers, their situation changes in the real world when Assef, a Pashtun bully who is jealous of Amir and Hassan’s closeness, traps Hassan and rapes him (Director Giles Croft stages this sensitively and, in a trend that continues throughout the show, a bit aloofly). Having secretly witnessed the assault, Amir turns his inner shame outward, he creates a lie that frames Hassan for theft, leading Ali and Hassan to flee Baba’s home for the countryside.
The already pronounced class differences amplify over the years: Amir and Baba eventually get to flee Kabul for 1980s Bay Area, where over time Amir meets and weds Soraya (Azita Ghanizada) and succeeds in his career as a published author. It’s only years later that he gets summoned back to Afghanistan to learn the truth about what happens to those he left behind – and more to the point, those who had his father send away.
In Hosseini’s novel, the story feels cumulative. The stakes build and lead to a place of catharsis. Onstage, Matthew Spangler’s adaptation forces narration in direct address to the audience, and the storytelling becomes something more episodic, making the show register somewhere closer to the head than the heart. And it puts too much of a burden on the deft, charismatic Arison, who is forced to push story forward and simultaneously outwardly express what must be felt internally. (Much credit should also be given to cultural adviser and script consultant Humaira Ghilzai, who ensures authenticity with the Farsi dialect spoken by many of the characters throughout as well.)
In its current form, though, the show, adapted by Spangler as far back as 2007, when the show was first staged at San Jose State University, keeps a safe distance from its subject matter. Amir harbors guilt for his misdeeds, but Kite Runner doesn’t want to examine the larger consequences of his actions In fact, the events and the emotions are so extreme, and the depth relatively superficial, this might have made for a better musical, or even an opera, than a play adaptation.
Kite Runner benefits from its onstage and backstage talent, who make the production an enticing sensory affair. Barney George’s production design serves multiple purposes: colorful fabric scales resembling the shape of a kite portraying a colorful middle Eastern background, making Amir’s remembrances of childhood feel almost storybook-like (especially when adding in projection designer William Simpson’s watercolor images of pomegranate trees), while an abstract carved San Francisco skyline makes Amir’s adult observations more jagged, and more lucid. Charles Balfour’s lighting design, including mostly of overhead and side angles, provides the necessary shading. George also did the show’s costume design, allowing us to easily trace Amir and his family members from the 1970s through the 2000s.
The Kite Runner also sounds great. Tabla artist Salar Nader is a one-man orchestra, perched onstage throughout the show and heightening the show’s emotional power with music composed by Jonathan Girling. And Drew Baumohl’s’s sound design allows for Arison and company never to be overpowered the music or other sonic effects, like thunder.
And the heroic cast provides additional texture to Spangler’s text as well. Arison carries the show, which runs about two hours and forty minutes long, with both dignity and endurance. And Tahir and Kashani are both excellent, the latter of whom plays several roles, are both excellent, always showing where their characters are coming from when providing resistance to Amir. These artists ensure the pulse of the show keeps beating, even if Spangler feels constricted by the novel’s literary confinement. Whatever its flaws may be, Kite Runner surely communicates the pain of its characters, and the relief one feels when finally being able to let go of it.
The Kite Runner