Writer: Tara Ahmadinejad
Directors: Tara Ahmadinejad, Jeff Wood
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
While NYC stages are still dark, the Public Theater’s seventeenth annual Under the Radar Festival is in full swing, offering a series of free streaming and live online performances by artists from around the world. Performance collective Piehole premiered Disclaimer at last year’s UTR Festival and have created a Zoom adaptation for 2021. This interactive cooking class/dinner party/murder mystery/meditation on identity was written by and stars Tara Ahmadinejad, who co-directs with Jeff Wood.
Disclaimer starts out with screens in the kitchens of Chef Nargis (Ahmadinejad) and Sous Chef Hassan as they prepare to teach the audience to make sabzi polo, a Persian herbed rice dish traditionally served for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Chef Nargis is quickly sidetracked as she tries to remember how to prepare the dish; she has to stop and call her mother multiple times to clarify details as she sets up the rice to soak. Then she reveals her real motive: she wants us to think about identity, specifically Iranian-American identity and how the threat of a U.S.A.-Iran war shapes that. Hassan does his best to keep the food on track, but Nargis plows ahead; she decides that the best way for us to empathize with Iranians is to get to know some of them. She selects audience members to represent Iranian friends and family, building an increasingly elaborate series of social connections that culminates in a Persian dinner party. Hassan, having given up on guiding Nargis back to the sabzi polo, sets up a miniature representation of the dinner party so we can follow the events. Suddenly, we hear a scream and the dinner party becomes an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Nargis spends the rest of the show solving the crime. While the plot synopsis may sound like Disclaimer is not sure what it wants to be, its plotting is quite deliberate. Even as we become enveloped in the scandals and gossip of Nargis’s Iranian community, we never lose sight of the questions of identity and representation that she raises early in the play. The twists and turns as Nargis transforms into an Iranian-American Hercule Poirot are engaging and funny, but also ask us to think about our own prejudices.
Piehole’s description of this work claims, “This event contains propaganda, vague promises of Persian food, minimally invasive audience participation, and (gasp) MURDER,” which is a pretty apt description. The mention of audience participation may make some audience members wary, but Piehole delivers on the “minimally invasive” promise. Those tapped to participate are asked to do little more than make some funny faces for the camera; folks who DO NOT want to participate can just turn off their cameras. Of course, the fact that most people leave their cameras on is part of what makes this actually feel like live theatre; rather than just seeing clapping emojis in the chat bar, we are part of an audience who we see laughing and responding.
We have seen a lot of virtual theatre since March. There have been play readings and streaming videos and even the occasional interactive Zoom event. Much of it has been thoughtful work, but it all feels like a placeholder, something to tide us over until we can breathe the same air with strangers again. Although it was originally developed as a stage play, Disclaimer not only feels like it was made for Zoom, it actually scratches the itch for live theatre. It is funny and it is relevant, but most of all it is visceral and immediate. For that alone it should be priority viewing.
Runs until 17 January 2021 | Photo Credit: Benjamin Smith