When Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner was published in 2003, it was one of those ‘new classics’ that rose to popularity among book clubs, was championed by critics and was the first book that year to be a bestseller (it remained a NY Times Bestseller for the next 5 years).
It has been heralded as a rich portrait of Afghanistan – a look not just at how the country was ravaged by war, but also at the beauty and culture that thrived before. At its core, however, The Kite Runner is a very personal story about two inseparable childhood friends torn apart not by the far-reaching war but by one boy’s act of cowardice that led to decades of remorse and a man’s reluctant journey back to the home his father and him were forced to flee.
Needless to say, The Cleveland Play House had a huge undertaking when they decided to stage The Kite Runner‘s theatrical Midwest premiere.
Adapting a novel into a film doesn’t pique my interest nearly as much as when it’s adapted into a play. Conveying the rich description of a novel can be daunting — especially when the settings jump from the exotic pre-war Afghanistan to San Francisco in the 80s to a war-torn Middle East. To do that on stage during a live performance – where you’re not afforded the luxury of digitally editing the pieces together – is a serious challenge. Fortunately, The Cleveland Play House production was able to capture the essence of the novel through performances that fully realized the emotions of the story.
One actor was especially essential to the success of this production — Jos Viramontes in the role of Amir. Both the novel and the play are narrated through the eyes of the grown Amir who now is a writer living in San Francisco. In the past, I’ve been wary of narrators in a theatrical production since their narration can sometimes hinder the audience’s experience if they don’t add much to the action on the stage. To prevent this, the role needs to be handled by an actor skilled enough to carry the weight.
Fortunately, the role of Amir was very deftly filled by Viramontes as he guides us through recollections of Amir’s childhood in Afghanistan, his friendship with his servant’s son Hassan, and his relationship with his father Baba. The older Amir shares insight into his early days of writing stories, kite fighting with Amir, and the intolerance between local Pashtuns and Hazaras that escalates into a brutal act made worse by Amir’s cowardice. Viramontes carries the role with skill not only adding a perspective you can’t get from the action playing out on stage, but also serving as an observer – reflecting the audience’s joy at the happy memories and dismay at his betrayals.
Incorporated into The Cleveland Play House production of The Kite Runner was music by Salar Nader. Nader, who is of Afghan origin, is a Tabla virtuoso who brings a contemporary approach to the traditional music. During The Kite Runner, he provided an overture and soundtrack that enveloped the audience in the culture and beauty found in the novel.
As with any adaptation, there were some differences between the play and Hosseini’s novel. While I think most of the changes were justified, there was one change that I thought would’ve been better left as is. In the novel, Assef, a particularly ruthless and prejudiced classmate of Amir, gives the young Amir a biography of Adolf Hitler for his birthday. This was an interesting detail in the book as it shed insight into Assef’s character and the level of hatred motivating some of his more heinous actions. In the stage adaptation, Assef instead gives Amir a soccer ball. While this sets up a conversation between Assef and Amir’s father that contrasts the tension between father and son, the moment didn’t hold the same impact for me as it had in the book.
While I may not have preferred this one change, The Kite Runner is still a devastatingly emotional and beautiful adaptation. It achieves what Hosseini did in his novel – introducing audiences to a culture very foreign to them, while commenting on themes of childhood friendship, father-son relationships, the impact of bullying and the challenges of redemption that are universal to all.
The Kite Runner continues until next Sunday, Nov. 7 with performances every day except Monday. The rest of The Cleveland Play House’s packed 2010-11 season is filled with one-man shows, musicals, and premieres at their current home on Euclid Ave. Their last show of the season, the 2011 FusionFest premiere Legacy of Light, theorizes a theme very important to the Play House this season: ‘everything changes, but nothing is lost.’ After this season closes, The Cleveland Play House will make their move to PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre for the Fall of 2011. As long as they don’t lose the same quality of challenging and well-produced theatre, The Cleveland Play House will keep me coming back.
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