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KABUL, Afghanistan - The audience waited nervously for the play to start. Few smiled. People barely reacted when the King of Kabul and his three friends bounded onstage and pledged to have nothing to do with women.
Right from the beginning, this was no ordinary performance of "Love's Labor's Lost." It was the opening night of Shakespeare in the Park, Afghan style, the first time the Bard's work had been performed professionally in Kabul in as long as 25 years.
"I've never heard of Shakespeare," said Safia Omari, 22, one of the few women in the audience. "It's definitely a step forward for Afghanistan."
In other countries, such a production would not be news. There would be few ramifications if a Shakespeare performance flopped. It's only a play.
But this is Afghanistan, where the ordinary can be magical and a play performed thousands of times for hundreds of years is fraught with new meaning. Here, even watching Shakespeare is a political statement. Performing it is downright radical.
In this play, women and men act onstage together, something unheard of in recent years in Afghanistan, torn apart by 23 years of war. They sing, dance, run around and fall in love, until a death forces them apart. They touch, although they never kiss.
Conservative Islamic forces, opposed to such behavior, will likely also oppose the play and others like it. Only four years ago, after all, women could not work or wear anything other than burqas.
"Some friends say the play is a good idea," said Nabi Tanha, 32, one of the actors. "And some say it's dangerous."
Before the play opened last week, everyone involved worried. Would Afghans come? Would women come? Would the actors and actresses be safe? Would cast members remember their lines? Would a fight break out onstage, as it had in rehearsal? Would people in the audience laugh? More importantly, would they get it?
"Understanding a Shakespeare play is not an easy job," said Breshna Bahar, 33, one of the actresses.
Shakespeare in the Park has been in the works for months. Corinne Jaber, a Paris-based actress, agreed to direct after holding acting workshops for Afghans in April. Jaber gave the Afghans a choice of Shakespeare: comedy or tragedy. Comedy, they told her, as they had seen enough tragedy.
Jaber had plenty of plays to pick from, as an Iranian scholar had translated all of Shakespeare into Farsi, related to Dari, one of Afghanistan's main languages. Jaber picked "Love's Labor's Lost" in part because it had an equal number of parts for men and women. It's also an Afghan-style story: couples fall in love, but tragedy intervenes.
So many men wanted to act in the play, Jaber called for auditions.
Then Jaber had to find the actresses. She held acting workshops. She went looking for women. In certain circles in Afghanistan, actresses are thought to be like prostitutes. One actress said yes but never showed up for rehearsal. Another actress, who also is a police officer and drives her own car, said some people stare at her like she has horns. Another said men mock her on the streets.
"The women are considered lost women," Jaber said. "They've had it in society."
The cast practiced for six weeks. At first, no one could concentrate for more than an hour. Actress Marina Golbahari, 15, who starred in the Afghan movie "Osama," either stared at her feet or collapsed into giggles. No one wanted to memorize the long monologues. The actors yelled at each other onstage. The actresses were too shy to perform a dance routine. Men and women were nervous with each other.
Jaber had to adapt. The lead actor got upset because he had more lines than anyone else but made the same amount of money - $550 a month. So Jaber gave him a smaller part.
Other changes were made. Monologues were cut, and the play was trimmed to 1 1/2 hours. Scenes were simplified. The play was moved from its setting in France to Afghanistan. The King of Kabul and his three friends would disguise themselves as Indians, instead of Russians.
The day before the play opened, the players tried on their costumes. By now, the men and women were so comfortable with each other that the men changed shirts in front of the women. They joked around. They played music, sang and danced while they waited.
"I think maybe they've gotten too free," Jaber said, jokingly.
The next night, the garden was packed a half-hour before the show premiered. Many had never seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare. About 400 people eventually showed up, including about 40 foreigners and 40 Afghan women. The rest were Afghan men, who waited stone-faced for the performance to begin.
After the first scene, and after the actors and actresses grew more comfortable and the Shakespeare slapstick started, the audience woke up. Smiles appeared. People were riveted.
By the time the actors dressed up as Indians and mimicked Bollywood song-and-dance routines, the audience was rolling. People spontaneously started to clap, although it was only the middle of the show.
Omari, one of the women in the audience, whispered "fantastic" and said she liked Shakespeare a lot.
There were problems. Mobile phones kept ringing. On the streets outside, horns kept honking. Planes flew overhead. A child with a bag of biscuits wandered across the stage. People shuffled in late.
But through it all, the actors and actresses kept their concentration, even at the end, when a death meant the princess and her three ladies had to go home.
This scene is supposed to be sad, the bittersweet end to the comedy. But the Afghan audience found the ending the funniest part of all, and people laughed until the couples walked off the stage. That's humor in Afghanistan, where tragedy sometimes actually is comedy.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.