The King Is Dread

Death of Yazdgerd seems to be about George Bush.

It might be one third of Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil,” but Iran wasn’t always a materially poor nation deeply marked by Islam, as many Iranians tell Canadian writer Alison Wearing in her lovely travelogue Honeymoon in Purdah. Many whisper of the days before the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, days when Iran was prosperous and people had wider freedoms than they now enjoy.

They could just as easily be speaking of the period from 559 BC to AD 651 between the time Cyrus I’s benevolent rule extended from the border of Africa to China, to the death of Yazdgerd III, an event dramatized in Iranian filmmaker and writer Bahram Beyzaie’s Death of Yazdgerd, now being performed by the Iranian-American theater company Darvag at the Ashby Stage. This was Persia’s golden age, rich in resources, culture, and enduring design, and it ended when Arab invaders swept onto the Iranian plateau, bringing Islam with them.

Yazdgerd III was the last king of the Sassanians, the last of the pre-Islamic Persian dynasties. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown, a situation Beyzaie exploits as he suggests first one and then another possibility. In fact, the whole hour and a half of this one-act play is a cascade of possibilities. Clearly a man lies dead on the stone in a poor family’s mill, but is the body really that of the king? And if it is the king, who killed him, and why? One by one, the miller, his headstrong wife, and their slightly deranged daughter put on the king’s golden mask and act out different scenarios for an impatient army commander, his subordinate, and a priest who are all anxious to quickly dispense justice so they can get back to meeting the Arab invaders, king or no king.

Ancient Persia gave us the prophet Zoroaster, who first popularized the idea of a cosmic duality — good, in the form of Ahura Mazda, and evil, known as Ahriman. Even a ruler could yield to the dark side. Zoroastrianism preached that a king’s right to rule flowed from his righteous conduct, and the Persians believed every aspect of their nation’s well-being depended on the king’s moral stature. So if the king was misbehaving on a personal level — oh, say, lying, shirking his duty, or taking advantage of his subjects — the whole empire would crumble and fall to the wolves. In the play, these beliefs are conveyed by the commander and the priest, who start out thinking the worst of the family, but then have to consider that perhaps their king was less noble than they’d imagined.

The resulting play is intense, but as directed here it lacks nuance. The actors start at an emotionally high level and stay there; director Evren Odcikin isn’t kidding when he notes in the program that Beyzaie is difficult to stage because his structure is “circular and repetitive.” There is much poetry in the writing, and it would be nice to understand Farsi to hear the play done in its native tongue. But the overall experience is a bit of a beating. Between trying to follow the priest’s portentous discussion of dreams, listening to the miller and his wife castigating each other, and trying to figure out what’s really wrong with their daughter, the audience doesn’t get much chance to breathe as the dead king’s tragic interactions with the family come to light.

Like the upcoming adaptation of The Persians at the Aurora, Death of Yazdgerd is offered in the hope that it will inspire audiences to think more critically about the current situation in the Middle East. But it’s also about power and the abuse thereof, which should resonate with what’s happening here at home as we think about the upcoming election. Audiences critical of George W. Bush will delight in telling lines such as one that comes from the commander late in the play, speaking of Yazdgerd: “From him, we have inherited a world we can’t defend.”

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