Regional Reviews: St. Louis
She spoke in her usual quiet manner, on a set-within-a-set, on the opening weekend of Rohina Malik's story of forced immigrationnot only a hot topic, but an unexpectedly fresh and enjoyable romantic comedy, despite the script's dark shadows. Beautiful, massive Moorish arches loomed up in the background, thanks to designer Kyra Bishop. They glittered and towered imposingly over a fairly standard set with two immigrant households just downstage.
"But I wish it wasn't quite as relevant as it is tonight!" director Jent added ruefully, drawing uneasy laughter before Yasmina's Necklace began. Hours earlier, a new U.S. president surprised the world (and his advisors) with a ban on immigrants from seven Islamic nations, stopping people already on planes and in airports from entering the United States.
Of course at intermission we all turned on our phones again to learn a federal court had issued an "emergency stay" of the entry ban. But there were still plenty of other refugee problems in store for Yasmina, the title character in this 2016 show: her nightmarish memories of 21st century Iraq; a lost love; and now pressure to enter into an arranged marriage in the U.S.
As a physical presence, Yasmina (played by Parvuna Sulaiman) is diminutive and deferential, but also defiant about an arranged marriage. Her father (the splendid Amro Salama) was a successful dentist in Iraq, before chaos entered along with the U.S. invasion in 2003. Before they left Yasmina was tasked with burying the dead, threatened with death, and even kidnapped. In Ms. Sulaiman's performance there is a tight personal focus; like the solitude of a Middle-East courtyard, where she's walled-in against insanity.
But what's so very amazing is this refugee drama also succeeds as a delightful romantic comedy. Actor Adam Flores as Sam uses outstanding naturalism and nonchalant humor to reinvent romantic comedy on his own terms, in the context of immigrant and refugee life. Despite the familiarity of the rom-com, his performance is virtually devoid of cliché, and his wit springs from the most unassuming persona: recently divorced, and worried about anti-Islamic attitudes in the U.S.
Yasmina's mother has died in Iraq, but otherwise there's no shortage of parental supervision, as she and Sam are worrited and chivied toward matrimony. They do gradually draw closer, but a childhood sweetheart (the fine Ethan Joel Isaac) keeps appearing in flashbacks from Yasmina's past. Those little scenes play into additional confrontations and confessions near the end, which is appropriate to both genres.
Ms. Sulaiman maintains a mysterious tone, but also turns graceful and lithe in a lovely wedding dance. Maritza Motta Gonzalez and Chuck Winning are excellent as Sam's parents, acting as one despite their different ethnic backgrounds. Jaime Zayas (as Imam Rafi) may seem unremarkable at first, but shows increasing comedic ability, and surprising wisdom and authority as the story goes on.
It's a sensitive, frequently comedic illustration of Islamic culture working despite international interference and interpersonal misunderstandings. If this keeps up, Ms. Malik could become the Muslim Neil Simon.
Through February 12, 2017, on the south end of Fontbonne University's campus, 6800 Wydown Blvd. Enter from Big Bend Blvd. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association