The Kite Runner is beautiful but it just doesn’t fly

Photo by Bekah Lynn Photography

There are scenes in the touring production of The Kite Runner that are absolutely exquisite. The first major one involves the titular activity, which is part of a Kabul kite-flying competition, a cut-throat activity in which contestants try to down opposing kites by severing their strings with vicious moves. The “kite runners” chase after the fallen kites to claim them as souvenirs. With actors all over the stage, a tabla artist (Salar Nader) onstage to provide rhythmic atmosphere, kites (practical and digital) seemingly everywhere, and wind noise makers whirling in multiple hands, the scene is transcendent. Unfortunately, the emotion it reveals—both in the audience and the characters—does not last.

The play is narrated by Amir (Ramzi Khalaf doing a great job portraying his character both as a child and as a man sans any costume or physical changes), a wealthy Pashtun boy who lives in a huge compound with his father, Baba (Haythem Noor), and their Hazara servants. It is clear from the outset that Hazara are a lower caste, but both Ali (Hassan Nazari-Robati) and his son Hassan (Shahzeb Zahid Hussain) feel fortunate to be with Baba and Amir, whom they consider friends as well as masters. This is Afghanistan as it was in the 70s and 80s, before the civil war and the Russian invasion, and long before the first incarnation of the Taliban, all of which, by 2001, had turned it into something ugly that it had never been.

Amir as a youth is a self-centered coward who can never understand why his father always seems to favor the servant Hassan over him. Hassan is small but unafraid to stand up for himself; Amir hides in the shadows whenever something ugly is going down, even if it involves his friend getting hurt. Baba, a rich and powerful man, cannot understand how his son could be this way. When Amir betrays Hassan, Baba intercedes on the servant boy’s behalf. For his part, Hassan instantly forgives the boy he thinks of, despite everything, as his best friend.

The rise of the Taliban (embodied here by Wiley Naman Strasser, whose Assef is a heartless bully as a boy and of course becomes a Taliban leader later on) forces Baba and Amir to emigrate to America, where they land in San Francisco. It is there, in a Pashtun-dominated community, that Amir grows up and meets Soraya (Awesta Zarif), who will become his wife. (Zarif is calmly amazing in her role; Amir, still hiding the darkness of his cowardly youth, doesn’t deserve her.)

Khaled Hosseini’s powerful autobiographical novel is full of difficult-to-handle moments told with an intensity that makes the reader almost a part of the darkness. It is a brilliant, awkward, searing story in which Hosseini pulls no punches and makes no excuses, showing Amir’s failings as a son and a friend (and basically as a human being) with the same clarity with which he presents the horrors of the Taliban. The play’s staging, though, as lovely as it gets at times, struggles to capture that horror, as Matthew Spangler’s adaptation gives short shrift to much of it.

This is a play that should hit you like a punch in the gut but is satisfied with a gentle tap on the arm. There is little that director Giles Croft could have done to help that. He gets excellent support from lighting designer Charles Balfour, projections designer William Simpson, sound designer Drew Baumohl, scenic designer Barney George, as well as others. Hosseini’s novel is a painful and personal narrative that, frankly, defies adaptation to the stage. I remember being very surprised when I first learned of the play. I’m not surprised that, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, it does not work.

The Kite Runner is presented by Broadway in Chicago and is playing at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W Monroe St., Chicago, until Jun 23. Performance times vary; check the schedule here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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