Song of the North: a Thousand-Year-Old Tale of Empowerment at Oz Arts

Prince Bijan (Clay Westman) and Princess Minijeh (Sarah Walsh)

The longest epic poem created by a single author, Shahnameh, the Epic of the Persian Kings, tells the history of pre-Islamic Persia in 62 stories that amass 50,000 rhyming couplets. It is divided into mythical, heroic and historical ages leading from the creation of the world until the Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century and is often cited as the reason why the Persian language (Farsi) survived while other languages were taken over by Arabic centuries ago. Hamid Rahmanian’s Shadow puppet production, Song of the North, given at Oz Arts on April 19-21, adapts the Shahnameh tale of Princess Manijeh, a resilient heroine archer with an enchanting voice who must save her heroic Prince Bijan and stop her father’s war.

Rahmanian’s production is simply lovely. Projected from behind the stage onto a white screen, and complemented with sparse background animations, the story is told in a marvelous way. Most primary characters are embodied in stylized performance practice with projected masks. Prince Bijan’s (Clay Westman) hubris and daring, expressed with a puffed chest and exaggerated, raised fists is laughably heroic while Princess Minijeh’s (Sarah Walsh) reaching, imploring hands, accompanied by her enchanting song, are endearing and, coupled with Loga Ramin Torkian’s remarkable score (vocals from Azam Ali) the moments are downright captivating.

However, the real stars of the production are the over 500 puppets: the giant Demon is terrifying, and the two kings are so well depicted that I thought they were embodied like the other main characters.  In the battle scenes (and chase scenes) the soldiers are appropriately menacing while the horses are all trusty steeds. Like the kings, the dance scenes incorporate puppets and embodied characters so well that your imagination no longer recognizes the difference.

The Prince and Princess capture the demon (photo Richard Termine)

However, the beauty of the whole show didn’t hit home for me until the final applause when the crew came in front of the screen with each wearing the same black shirt with #womanlifefreedom imprinted across the front. Rahmanian then explained the reason for creating this show, stating that Iran has had a “bad reputation” in the United States for some time, and that he wished to create an alternative narrative. From this perspective, the Song of the North is a production that, even as it challenges the current mainstream western image of Persian (and Iranian) culture, it also provides an Iranian narrative that empowers and stands in solidarity with Iranian women in the face of the regime’s stepped-up repression and gender violence since the murder of Mahsa Amini in September, 2022. Although the show is past and it is unclear where it will appear next, the epic popup book is available here:



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