Barely a word is spoken in “Innominate,” the thrilling new production that opened May 27 at The Catastrophic Theatre. Through modern dance, an arsenal of video screens, puppetry and an eclectic score, Afsaneh Aayani’s new play conjures a sweeping, bold and intimate portrait of an Iranian immigrant and her trials. In one hour “Innominate” fills the small Match theater space with overwhelming energy.
The play begins with The Girl (Natalie Nassar) hanging sheets, each adorned with a painting of a person. A disembodied voice tells us these are casualties of war and provides an age for each one. Soon The Girl is joined by an ensemble of dancers with bulbous eyeballs covering their heads. Throughout “Innominate” they form a silent chorus of sorts, conveying through movement a range of action and emotion: fear, intimidation, love, scorn, indifference. These dancers are the whirling engine of “Innominate,” observing The Girl (they are, after all, eyeballs) and sending her through the paces of arriving and existing in a strange land.
The Girl’s paces include the red tape of immigration, the crippling loneliness and guilt of being far from a war-torn home, and, eventually, COVID-19. Much of this is conveyed through the video screens at the back of the stage (I counted 30, but I could be off). They show everything from text messages (and thumbs-up emojis) to newscasts to immigration forms, adding narrative elements through pixels and light.
Nassar’s job is primarily to react, a tricky task made more daunting when her face is the only one visible. She is primarily interacting with dancing eyeballs. She pulls it off and makes The Girl a flesh-and-blood character, rather than a symbol. Aayani studied puppetry at the University of Tehran and earned her Master’s in scenic design at the University of Houston. In addition to writing “Innominate,” which means “not named or classified,” she is also the director, scenic designer and prop and puppet designer. The play feels urgently personal; it has the immediacy of lived life. But it’s also bracingly abstract, in a way that marks it as pure art.
When human voices (or, rarer still, faces) do enter the picture, the effect is jarring, as if waking from a dream. When The Girl goes to the wrong airport line upon entering the States, a man’s voice barks over the sound system, telling her to join the rest of the “Middle Easterners.” “Innominate” has a touch of Kafka to it, a sensation of being pushed and pulled by unnamed forces (or, in this case, eyeballs). Except the eyeballs themselves often seem to be under the sway as well. At one point they all shrug, as if to say, “What, you think we know what’s going on?”
Aayani is a major talent with something to say, and a multitude of talents with which to say it. You can also see her work in the University of Houston’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” for which she and “Innominate” scenic painter Corey Nance created the massive carnivorous plant Audrey II. But it won’t be long before her vision moves beyond Houston’s city limits.
Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.