A giant screen shows a feathery figure wearing a mask made out of precisely cut paper designed to resemble a face and decorated with colored film. This is Simorgh, the owner of the feathers in “Feathers of Fire,” a shadow theater adaptation of the “Shahnameh,” a Persian epic. This stunning play, created using a projector, 160 puppets, 15 masks and costumes for eight actors, and 158 animated backgrounds returned to San Francisco for a three day run at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater from Nov. 3-5.
“Feathers of Fire,” Hamid Rahmanian’s adaptation of the “Shahnameh” has been called “the largest shadow play of all time.” It’s no surprise, considering the “Shahnameh” chronicles everything from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquest of Persia, and is the longest epic written by a single writer. Rather than focus on the entire epic, “Feathers of Fire” tells the story of Zaul and Rudabeh, the parents of Rostam, Persia’s national epic hero, through traditional Balinese shadow puppetry.
“Feathers of Fire” begins with Zaul (Gabriela Garcia and Ryan Tasker) being abandoned on top of a mountain due to his albinism. He is rescued by Simorgh, a gigantic bird with rainbow feathers, who raises him and teaches him to survive in the wild. Simorgh (Rose Nisker) eventually finds Zaul’s father, Saum (Fred C. Riley III), and reunites them after giving him three golden feathers to use if he ever needs her help. Zaul grows to be a wise warrior, and falls in love with Princess Rudabeh (Dina Zarif and Lisa Hori-Garcia), embarking on a forbidden romance that ends in bliss.
Why did Rahmanian chose to focus on this story? “Because it has elements of ‘Rapunzel,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Jungle Book.’ These elements are familiar to a Western audience, I didn’t want to start with something totally unfamiliar that alienates the Western mind. It’s also one of the few stories that stands alone, because the ‘Shahnameh’ is like ‘Game of Thrones,’ you don’t know what’s going on if you aren’t paying attention since the beginning,” said Rahmanian.
The awe-inspiring play had the audience (including me) sitting with our mouths agape waiting for the next scene as we tried to figure out how the play was performed backstage. We got our wish after the play ended, as Rahmanian, armed with a laptop camera, walked us through the process.
The entire play is an exercise in playing with perspective. A projector plays the backgrounds, a black frame stands a few feet in front of it, serving as a marker for the smaller puppets. The actors, wearing masks and dressed in black, perform in front of the frame to appear to be the same size as the puppets, with the exception of Rose Nisker, who stands closer to the projector to make the mythical Simorgh appear larger than life.
Rahmanian, a Guggenheim fellow and former Disney animator, says, “This has been a ten year project [taking up multiple phases as a book, comic book and finally the play, which took four years to create] but I wanted to tell this story.” Rahmanian took inspiration from traditional Persian art to create the character designs and backgrounds for his passion project.
Rahmanian created storyboards, a script, designed characters, picked actors, composers and most importantly, helped make the puppets. When asked how the puppets were made, Rahmain said, “with difficulty […] it’s very tedious and labor intensive, and it takes a long time, perseverance, and determination. Each puppet on average takes 16 hours to make.”
He was assisted by Larry Reed, a Bay Area artist, shadowmaster and founder of ShadowLight Productions, a company dedicated solely to shadow puppetry. Reed had developed the combination of film and shadow puppetry seen in the show, as well as masks that allow actors to perform alongside the puppets. This gives “Feathers of Fire” a multi-layered look. Iranian composers Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali, who added a final dimension to the film with their score, blending classical and modern instrumental Persian music.
Together, they created a beautifully elaborate play that blends cinematic art with centuries old artistic tradition, succeeding in attracting the attention of everyone who watches it. The play, which originated in San Francisco, found an early fan in filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who saw the show three times in its first run. “Feathers of Fire” has sold out every show during its first run, which included stops at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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