Theater Review: Avaaz

Avaaz, an astonishing work by an immensely talented playwright and actor, is playing at Maryland’s Olney Theater through April 7, 2024.

Kismet alert. Ok so I was feeling antsy. Very antsy on Friday afternoon. I was supposed to take a nature walk but wasn’t feeling it. So instead I spent a leisurely 40 minutes at the library. At 6 pm, when the library closed I decided maybe I wanted to see a play, so I searched the first theater that came to mind, Olney Theater. 

Onstage that night was a one-person play called Avaaz. The playwright stars in the role of his own mother and tells of her life in Iran and coming to California from there after the Islamic Revolution. The guy’s face in the promo poster looked exuberant and slightly cheeky. It promised to be funny and moving. Perfect. I ran home; changed into non-sweatpants; swiped on some lipstick; switched my hair clip from boring to metallic gold; and jumped into the car.

When I arrived there was a woman in front of me getting her tickets. She finished and wandered away.

I asked the ticket counter person if there were more tickets available for purchase to that evening’s performance. She said yes, but then the other woman called over – “oh do you need a ticket? I have an extra one.”

Apparently, a person from another board of directors she sits on assured her that she HAD to see this show and left her not one, but two free tickets. She didn’t know there would be another until she arrived.

Here’s how I think about this. Tolu, my benefactor, could have already been at her seat. Or I could have arrived 15 minutes earlier than her. But this happened in perfect cosmic choreography. I was excited about the play and it would have been worth the ticket price, but holy tamales, it felt like a gift from the Guides that I spontaneously felt moved to come see this show, and then a ticket was waiting for me. Reminders that if we are awake with open eyes, we can see that we’re taken care of. I frickin love moments like this. So grateful.

And the play. Oh the play. It was one of the best performances I’ve seen. It was poignant. It was laugh-out-loud funny. Michael Shayan playing his mother, Roya Shayan, is a tour-de-force. He is a master conductor of the audience’s energy and emotions. The way the show unfolds and the way he embodies Roya brought me back to seeing the great Neil Patrick Harris playing Hedwig on Broadway. 

The show begins before the show begins with Michael Shayan, already in character as Roya covered top to bottom in a shimmering gold and black lamé robe, walking around and chattering with audience members as people file into their seats. A genius way to get us warmed up.

As the show starts, Roya is enchanting. At times she asks us to repeat words in Farsi, call out answers to her questions, and learn some dance moves. Picture all 140 of us + Roya dancing to the iconic Persian singer Hayedeh.

At one point she pours herself tea from a samovar and sits in a teak and velvet armchair. It feels like we’re sitting in the living room of a great-aunt on a Shabbos afternoon. The Shayans are, in fact, Iranian-Jewish, so that fits the bill perfectly. 

As she sips her tea, she’s telling us stories from her childhood, her life in California, and making conversational jokes. At times she slips into a darker memory. Then she cracks another joke and we’re sitting in her living room again.

She starts letting her guard down more often, telling more personal, sometimes heart-wrenching stories. At times we collectively stay our breath, silently sitting with our attention rapt on this masterful storyteller. You could hear a pin drop.

We learn about each of the seven items on the Nowruz table. A spotlight highlights an item, Somaq (sumac). She talks about its significance to Nowruz and then drifts into a reverie about attending a clandestine disco in Tehran and then fleeing into the dark of night. The spotlight brings our attention to Serkeh, vinegar, and we are racing along with her to her unexpected wedding day. The spotlight shifts. We wonder along with her if her son will come or if he’ll stay away like he has for the last year.

The play is completely based on Roya’s real-life stories and we quickly come to care deeply for her. The play is, dare I say, a perfect balance between keeping the tone light and bringing us into the painful chapters of her life and also the oppressive pain suffered by the Iranian people.

The key, to me, is the humor. It opens us up, and because she doesn’t let us dwell long enough to shut down again we experience every story with a truly listening ear and an open heart.

At the end of the show, we join in feeling a powerful release. We celebrate her strength and vibrance, the immutable love she has for her son, and the deepened relationship between them.

Avaaz is playing at Olney Theater until April 7, 2024 and will then be going on national tour. If you get the chance, go see this show! You will leave feeling contemplative, enlightened, and joyful. 

2 thoughts on “Theater Review: Avaaz”

  1. Julie, thank you for the review, and telling us about a slice of theatre culture nearby! What a fun adventure even starting with how you got the ticket haha. From the YT video he looks like he’s having a good time on stage; I would like to mimic his dances moves 😀

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