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Notes on a Life Imagined and Lived

The dark night, the fear of waves, the terrifying whirlpool,
how can they know of our state, those who go lightly along the shore?
— Háfiz

Both Abdoh’s partner, Brenden Doyle, and Abdoh’s brother, Salar, have compared the way Reza Abdoh directed with the way he cooked. Improvisational, instinctive, and imperious, Abdoh’s efforts in the kitchen yielded results deemed brilliant, an evaluation somewhat less controversial than that of his theater works. Abdoh improvised and invented not only in the theater and kitchen but throughout his entire life — true of everyone, to some extent, but the vicissitudes of Abdoh’s life and the unexpected turns were of a nature certainly not encountered by most people. As if the actual events of his life were not extraordinary enough, Reza Abdoh fabricated certain parts of his biography and remained reticent or vague about several others. As a result, discovering reliable information about Abdoh is not a simple endeavor.

Biographical criticism almost always serves as a needless limit on the flexibility with which works can be viewed and discussed, regardless of whose work one may be discussing. As I discuss in later chapters, there is a particularly acute danger in using biographical information as a foundation for interpretations of Abdoh’s work — one may be working from information that is outright false or only partially correct. The following information, mostly gleaned from interviews from friends and family and therefore, more or less, hearsay, nevertheless persuasively contradicts a number of details published in many articles and profiles, details which gradually became laced into the criticism of Abdoh’s works.

Some of the contradictions in the interviews suggest that Reza Abdoh not only made up information about his professional career, but also that he may have felt deeply ambivalent about aspects of his life and therefore described certain personal matters differently to different people. For example, Dokhi Mirmirani, a woman described by Reza’s family as one of his closest friends, recalls with confidence Reza’s telling her that his mother learned he was gay when he was only eleven years old, and that the mother expressed approval. Reza’s mother, in contrast, says she did not learn of her son’s sexual preference until Reza’s father died in 1979, at which point she expressed what sounds more like acceptance than approval.

The discrepancy could be attributed to what Reza’s brother, Salar, describes as a need Reza had to imagine a relationship between himself and his mother that was more intimate than was actually possible; or, Dokhi Mirmirani could simply be remembering the story incorrectly. Either way, the contradictory story in itself casts a certain degree of light on who Reza Abdoh actually was, particularly when set along the contradictions that filled and surrounded Reza’s entire life. Reading the interviews done as background research for the dissertation bears more than a little resemblance to viewing Rashomon, but through the certainties and uncertainties it’s possible to get at least some sense of the life behind the art. Finally, in discussing the part of Reza’s life spent in Iran, I think it is also important to discuss what was happening in Iran at the time and to describe the cultural milieu to which Reza and his family belonged.

Family and Childhood

I’m your Prince Valiant. In 1963 I invented costume jewelry for the beautiful people. I was lionized by them, and I became one of the most splendidly beautiful of them. Handsome, tall and thin, sitting in the back of my vintage Rolls with matching driver, wearing my floor length leopard or monkey or unicorn coat, all of which have disappeared.
—Abdoh, Bogeyman

Abdoh was born in Tehran to Homa (née Mohajerin, now Oboodi) and Ali Abdoh. His mother was 16 years old when she gave birth to him, her first child. Although contemporary western prejudices might lead one to assume that Homa came from a “traditional” family, that is not entirely the case. Homa’s father was a diplomat. Although Homa was born in Italy, her father lived for a time in Geneva and she was raised for the most part in Swiss boarding schools until she turned fifteen. She then returned to Iran; her brother remained in Switzerland, however, and is now a surgeon there. Growing up, Homa never wore the veil, or chador, she would later be required to wear after the overthrow of the Shah. In spite of her education and international background, it was still considered proper and wise for her to marry Ali Abdoh when the opportunity presented itself; the family made the decision for her to marry, not she. Reza’s father was a dynamic figure, well-connected and wealthy, and their marriage at the time seemed more than normal-it was prudent and fortunate. The two of them had met the summer before Homa returned from Switzerland. They met in one of the bowling alleys Ali owned. Ali was about twenty-five years older than Homa.

Reza’s father was a character in his own right. Ali Abdoh came to America in 1949 when he was 16 years old. He had dual citizenship, marrying an American woman while he was in his twenties and having a daughter by her, named Regina. He served in the American Army and fought as an American soldier in the Korean War. In 1954, he was featured in a full-page photo in Life magazine; the caption read, “One Man Beats Six at Volleyball: Ali Abdoh learned how in Tehran.” On one side of the court stood six men, standing tense in expectation. On the other side of the court stood Ali Abdoh, alone, his back arched in motion to serve. Everyone who knew him describes him as having been just such a dynamic type — the Life photo, apparently, was not much of an exaggeration.

Eventually Ali Abdoh returned to Iran to open the country’s first bowling alley. Between the novelty of the sport and the pro-American sentiment that took hold of the Iranian middle and upper classes during the 1960s, the sport became quite popular — and Ali Abdoh became quite rich, following his chain of bowling alleys with pool halls and restaurants. He became a member of the Shah’s coterie, although the connection to the ruling class was a longstanding one, as Ali Abdoh’s father had himself worked in the Iranian Defense Department. By the time he married Homa Mohajerin, he was well-established, had already been through one marriage, and, although Homa called him a “good friend,” she also conceded that he was not such a good husband or father. He socialized a great deal, often leaving Homa with the children, and when he did stay home the discipline he gave the children was hard.

The Abdoh family was Shi’ite and as such belonged to the branch of Islam to which about 88% of Iranians belong. It is the religion preached by the forces that overthrew the Shah. As one might infer from Homa’s preference not to wear a chador, however, the simple fact of being Shi’ite does not necessarily signify a sympathy with the rhetoric and extremism which most Americans have come to associate with Iranian Shiites. In the United States, Iran’s image has been colored mostly monotone since the 1979 revolution; the cultural diversity and sophistication of Iran and its people have often been forgotten. The 1979 revolution, however, was not purely a religious revolution; indeed, it enjoyed widespread support from more cosmopolitan and secular segments of the population. The extremism of the Ayatollah and his followers was not immediately clear to many of the people who supported him as an alternative to the Shah — certainly not to Homa Abdoh and her children.

The Persians have traditionally considered themselves to be a cosmopolitan nation, westward looking. Many Iranians are quick to point out that Farsi is itself an Indo-European, rather than Semitic or Arabic, language. Prior to the revolution, Iran was much more progressive vis-à-vis women’s rights compared to other Muslim nations; even after the revolution, it was and still is possible for women to participate in the workplace, which is not the case under Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Reza Khan, who became Shah in 1925, had begun a Westernization campaign modeled on Atatürk’s in Turkey; Shah Reza Pahlevi would also follow this path. For years, Americans received a portrait of a nation of anti-Western, Moslem fanatics, but the literary and artistic traditions of Iran make the culture far more complex. The Abdohs were part of an elite but significant class grounded in and proud of their Persian heritage but well-versed in and influenced by the customs and history of the West.

Reza was born in 1963. He was the first child that Homa and Ali would have together, born “nine or ten months” after they were married . Later, he would be joined by two brothers, Salar and Sardar, and a sister, Negar. The fifties in Iran, as in many other countries, had been years of comparative prosperity, repairing the neglect and harm suffered during the second world war. There had been a great deal of optimism in the country as the Shah consolidated his power under the embrace of the United States. Gradually, Iran began to suffer under the strains of rapid industrialization and urbanization, all exacerbated by the corruption intrinsic to dictatorships and non-transparent economies. At the end of World War II, Tehran had a million citizens; by 1959, it had 2.5 million. (Today, it has over 10 million.) These factors helped to create some of the memorable studies in contrasts that would remain with the Abdoh family for years to come. The vast difference in living standards, for example, were constantly wrought upon the children as they rode through the capital in their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, staring out the window at images of absolute squalor. Similar to the economic disparities, there were radically divergent movements in the society towards and away from secularism. The same year Reza was born, the Shah had outlined a six-point reform program called the White Revolution, which sought to create a literacy corps, nationalize forest and water resources, institute land reform, establish suffrage for women and the Armenian and Jewish minorities, and introduce employee profit sharing in industry. Many of these reforms were anathema to the conservative clerics; demonstrations broke out, which resulted in expulsions, increased censorship, and less power for the parliament. The Iran of Abdoh’s youth became increasingly repressive, malcontented, corrupt.

In 1967, the Shah designated himself emperor and celebrated the event with a modern art festival in Shiraz, which also hosted an annual theater festival. In contrast, throughout Iran, every summer, in the Islamic calendar month of Muharram, the religious Shi’ites would celebrate a day of mourning called Ashura, where people would pour into the streets to perform ritual acts of grief and — literally— self-flagellation to mark the assassination of the Mohammed’s grandson, Hussayn. The arts festival at Shiraz was also not without its problems and studies in contrasts. In 1974, a French theater company staged a play in a storefront using nude actors. Manucher Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian who held various posts in the Shah’s government, described the event in his memoir as

a sight that had sent the pious Shirazis reeling and the Tehran intelligentsia muttering that such a display wouldn’t have been acceptable even in France. To me it was just one more example of a dream turned into a nightmare, more the rule than the exception in Iran.

According to Farmanfarmaian, Iran was a stopover for numerous Western hippies who were following the course of the Silk Route, providing more occasions for cultural friction:

To our amazement they parked their trucks and cars on the sidewalk outside the embassy, set up tents and picnicked, and acted for all the world like the beggars at the gates of our own bazaar. Then they demanded to camp on the embassy lawn. The ambassador closed the gates and refused to allow them in. Left outside, they made placards and began to demonstrate…. These scraggly hippies, with their torn jeans and limp hair, were doing what we had never dared to do: question the force and power of the British government.

Salar Abdoh would mention Ashura, its parade of self-flagellants, and the public displays or ritual animal sacrifice and other religious celebrations as among the jolting contrasts presented to children in a family that took its summers in England and took trips to Western art museums. At any rate, it’s worth noting that, even without the trips abroad, Iran itself was host to numerous cultural contradictions and contrasts that would invariably have had an effect on what was by all accounts an intelligent boy sensitive to his surroundings.

The young Reza knew from an early age how to direct the people around him and showed an interest in theatricality . His creative impulses were often indulged — not at all by Reza’s father, but rather by other members of the household. Reza would instruct his younger siblings or the servants to dress up in costumes; sometimes, he would direct them to act out a scene, or sometimes he would simply take a photograph of the costumed person and lend it a dramatic label, “The Wandering Spirit,” or something along those lines. According to his brother Salar, two years Reza’s junior, their mother may have a tendency when interviewed to try to be a most partial booster of Reza’s reputation, but her descriptions of an incredibly precocious child do not sound inconsistent with other, less biased accounts. According to Homa Oboodi, as early as nine years of age, Reza was asking her to take him to see movies by Ingmar Bergman and Akiro Kurosawa, both of whom he held in especially high esteem.

All artistic impulses were encouraged by the mother and discouraged by the father. Reza at one point wanted to learn how to play the violin; his sportsman father was apparently distraught and decreed such an idea to be absolutely out of the question. According to Homa, Reza “could have” performed in Robert Wilson’s KA MOUNTAIN GUARDenia TERRACE at the Shiraz Festival in 1972 if she had thought his father would have allowed it, but she never even bothered to ask. At any rate, Abdoh’s alleged participation in the show, trumpeted in just about every profile ever written about him, never actually happened.

The house Reza lived in until he was about ten or eleven years old was a large estate in northern Tehran at the foot of the Alburz mountain range. The estate featured a swimming pool, fish pond, and cherry trees. On one end of the ground, the family lived in a large, old white building, while on the “almost village-like other end” the groundskeeper lived with his family. Sometime around 1973, the family moved to a smaller house, still big by most standards, closer to the center of the city. In both houses, there were always two or three servants, though the homes always had a certain degree of shabbiness about them owing to his mother’s youthful disinterest in managing humdrum domestic affairs. The family also had a large summer house where it spent summers and holidays on the Caspian Sea where, according to Salar Abdoh, a lot of Reza’s “fond memories of childhood would have come from… by the seaside with children of friends, relatives, and servants who came and stayed with us for most of the holidays.”

To England

BLASTER: Where am I going?
MOISHE PIPIK: Home.
BLASTER: This is home.
—Abdoh, Tight Right White

When he was about thirteen years old, Reza was sent abroad for his schooling — not an uncommon event for the child of an upper class Iranian family. Homa described the decision to send Reza to England as stemming from a desire to provide him access to all the educational riches that he would not have been able to enjoy in Tehran. Over the next seven years, most if not all of his education would take place in England; according to Salar, some of it may have also taken place in the United States, although Homa seemed to think that Reza’s schooling took place entirely in Britain until 1979. The information about the years in England remains hazy until Abdoh’s arrival at the Wellington School, a day- and boarding school in rural southwest England, about two and a half hours from London.

Prior to Wellington, Reza lived with his grandmother and attended a day school in London. Based on dim recollections from family, friends, and a former teacher, Reza clearly had exhibited intelligence as a student, but, while he was in London, he began to indulge in the city’s myriad distractions to the point of neglecting his studies and incurring his father’s wrath. The father decided to send Reza to boarding school in Wellington as a form of punishment and as a way of getting Reza to focus on his academics. Not surprisingly, the change was not particularly welcomed by Ali Abdoh’s son. Reza would end up staying at the school from January of 1978 until the summer of 1979.

Reza Abdoh must have cut a distinctive figure at Wellington. The school currently reports an international school population of about 65 students, or 8% of the total student body, coming from about a dozen countries. Salar describes the atmosphere as a bit siege-like, citing the xenophobia and racism of many of the British students, to whom anyone from the Middle East was a “wog” or a “pak” or a “sand nigger.” Somehow, Reza kept his distance from most of the other students while apparently avoiding their animosity and even gaining a certain degree of respect. Reza was held in high regard by everyone at the school, students and teachers alike. His trademark the entire time he was at Wellington was the way he “lived in a raincoat, a black raincoat with sleeves that were too long… It was his way of subverting the school uniform,” his teacher and mentor at the school, Tony Charles, recalls. Charles remembers him as an original thinker with “high iconoclastic tendencies which he expressed in whatever way he could within the confines of having been shoved into a boarding school — without actually getting himself thrown out.” By the time Reza left Wellington, he had won the school’s Literature Prize, particularly remarkable given that English was not his first language.

Tony Charles, who taught Literature and directed theater productions at Wellington, may have been Reza’s closest and most important friend at the school. Charles and his wife would invite Abdoh to dine with them on Sundays and Reza would sometimes babysit for their children. Although the two of them had fallen out of touch with one another, Charles said he felt his memory of Reza was quite fresh, and he sounded sincerely struck at hearing the news of Reza’s death, unknown to him until our interview. Under Charles’ aegis, Reza had his first shot at directing theater. It was Charles who undertook a production of Peer Gynt at Wellington, and, as Reza sat in on rehearsals and spoke with Charles about how rehearsals were going, the teacher soon invited his protégé to co-direct the play with him, allowing Reza to stage several of the scenes himself. According to Charles, although it was the first time Reza directed, he “had a lot of ideas about theater” and did “extremely well” and “proved to be very innovative,” displaying from the start a tendency towards the experimental and the visually striking. They would discuss poetry at length, and Charles saw much of the work that would later go into a book of poetry Abdoh published with the Vantage Press in 1979, at age 16. The sullen picture on the back of the book, The Sound of a Poet Breathing in an Imprisoned Air, not to mention the title itself, suggest a somewhat stereotypical image of the melancholy, intellectual adolescent. According to Charles, Abdoh “identified” with people like Baudelaire and was drawn to the idea of the artist standing alone, an outsider to society.

Cataclysm

Every guy is like Donald Trump for at least part of his life. With some it lasts longer than others.
—Abdoh, Father Was a Peculiar Man

Based on the recollections of Tony Charles and Salar Abdoh, it sounds as though Reza completed his studies at Wellington with great success. His last months at the school, however, must have been a time when it was difficult to concentrate on life in England. On January 16, 1979, the Shah of Iran fled his country, recognizing that he could no longer control the demonstrations in the street. Khomeini returned to Iran from France in February, and “trials” began against the Shah’s supporters, ending in the execution of hundreds. In March, the Islamic Republic was founded. It was probably in the spring of 1979 that Ali Abdoh moved to L.A.; Reza probably followed sometime in late summer, after July, when the school term ended.

That autumn, at the start of Reza’s first semester at USC, his father, deprived of almost all of the assets he had, died of a heart attack. In November, Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for over a year. It was not an optimal time to be Iranian in America. As if that weren’t enough, Reza, who in England and Iran had been accustomed to seeing life from the window of a limousine, was dirt poor. And there is never an optimal time to be dirt poor in America. Ali Abdoh lost much of his fortune when he was not able to take it with him from Iran, but, reportedly, he also lost a great deal when “friends” embezzled money from the family. For the TDR anthology, Abdoh told John Bell that it was about this time that he directed Timon of Athens for the National Youth Theatre. But he didn’t direct it—he lived it.

There is a disturbing story about the weeks prior to Ali Abdoh’s death, known to both Dokhi Mirmirani, one of Abdoh’s closest friends, and Y.Z. Kami, Reza’s cousin and a painter living in New York. In L.A. with the children of Ali Abdoh’s second marriage was the daughter of Abdoh’s first wife. The daughter, Regina, informed Ali Abdoh that his eldest son was gay. To prove her point, Regina acquired gay pornographic magazines that may have been taken from Reza’s apartment. By Dokhi Mirmirani’s recollection, Regina did this out of malice, but Salar Abdoh remembers her actions as merely stupid and insensitive rather than malicious. Either way, the fallout was enormous. According to Mirmirani, Reza nearly strangled Regina, stopping only when bystanders pulled him away from her neck. Two weeks after this incident, Ali Abdoh was dead, and Reza never had the opportunity to make amends or find some path towards reconciliation.

What happened to Reza in the years that immediately followed is not altogether clear. Salar, Kami, Homa, and most others are all to this day firmly under the impression that Reza completed his studies at USC. Indeed, Salar thinks Reza finished his studies at USC and even attended law school for one year. The University of Southern California, which actually has something called a Verification Office, says that their records show Reza Abdoh as having matriculated for only one semester, in the fall of 1979. According to one newspaper profile, Abdoh described his experience as “pretty awful” and says he dropped out, but all future articles would imply that Abdoh finished his studies, sometimes in film, sometimes in comparative literature.

Numerous friends and relatives are also under the impression that Abdoh directed shows while at USC, and several are under the impression that Forrest Whitaker, the British actor, appeared in one of them. None of this knowledge is firsthand, and I have not been able to track down any of the people Reza knew from USC. The only newspaper profile to say that Abdoh dropped out of USC and therefore the profile that might have a bit more credibility than the others also says that the first work Abdoh directed in L.A. was a piece called Darkness Visible in 1981, “a compilation of meditations on Satanism.” Whether or not he used USC contacts for Darkness Visible is unclear; whether or not it happened is unclear he didn’t mention the piece to John Bell for the TDR chronology.

A reasonable guess would be that Reza dropped out of USC after one semester due to a combination of emotional and financial exhaustion and dissatisfaction with the program. Although tuition for 1980-1981 was only $5,310, which would have covered fees, room and board, it seems plausible that Reza could no longer afford to attend USC after the death of his father or lacked the energy or desire to be a student with a full or part-time job. According to Salar, all of the brothers were in dire financial situations. Reza’s brothers were homeless for some time; one story suggests that the youngest, Sardar, was at times a financial burden on Reza. While maintaining that Reza completed his studies at USC, Salar nevertheless recollects that Reza was having problems finding enough money to eat. It may well have been the case that he continued to attend classes and be a part of the student community without actually registering as a student. For a time he earned money working at a hotel. It may also have been at this time that Reza began to prostitute himself — an allegation maintained by friends and family alike. It is not clear whether Reza prostituted himself to support himself, his brother Sardar, his productions, or a combination of all three. Nor is it clear if he contracted HIV while engaging in that activity.

Salar speculates that these years may have been a “gestation” period for Reza, a time of trying to reconstruct a life that had fallen apart. Forging an identity. In the early 1980s, he began telling people his mother was half-Italian, probably to escape the anti-Iranian sentiment rampant in America and particularly California, where the Iranian community was substantial. Even Reza’s age became a matter of dispute. According to a 1991 profile in the L.A. Weekly, Abdoh claimed he was born in February 1964 but that for tax purposes his father had his birth certificate backdated to 1963.

Recovery

EXPERT WITNESS: I think in fragments. This is a method. I intend to fracture others’ thought. This is also a method. The method of dividing, and, by division, conquering.
—Abdoh, Minamata

Whatever happened in the early 1980s, Abdoh appears to have begun to pull his life back together by 1983, the year for which we can once again begin verifying the events described in previous profiles written about Reza. Indeed, 1983 may have been viewed by Reza himself as the year in which his professional career in the United States actually began — at least as early as 1988, Abdoh was saying that he hadn’t arrived in Los Angeles until 1983, a falsehood that continued to be published as late as the chronology assembled by John Bell, with Reza’s assistance, and published in the issue of TDR that appeared shortly after Abdoh’s death.

In 1983, Reza met Alan Mandell, who would turn out to be extremely important in promoting Abdoh’s career. Mandell was (and still is) a well-known actor and was a Consulting Director at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC). He invited Abdoh to assist him in directing an evening of Beckett one-acts. The next year, Mandell attended (and may have partly financed) the production of King Lear Abdoh directed in a loft, and was sufficiently impressed by it to urge members of the LATC’s artistic staff to come and see it. When Mandell told Diane White, Producing Director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, that the piece was four and a half hours long and was staged in a poorly ventilated loft, he defeated whatever other arguments he had made to convince White to see it. But then designer Timian Alsaker, an Artistic Associate at LATC, went to see the production and came back also urging White to investigate the work of a young man who ought to be invited to work at the theater.

There is no video of King Lear, but photos of the production as well as various reviews indicate that Abdoh had at this time already developed a taste for spectacle but had not yet found his own style or voice. Reviewing the play in The Los Angeles Times under the headline, “King Lear: Case of Déja Vu,” Don Shirley called the production “a [Ariane] Mnouchkine mnemonic a way of remembering the French director’s techniques.” The production photos validate Shirley’s criticism. In addition, the staging was accompanied by an “incessant stream of chimes and raga and other exotic sounds” while the cast used “ramps at the sides for most of its entrances and exits.” Other reviews were more favorable, but the most important reaction was unwritten: the LATC’s artistic staff decided the young director had merit.

In late spring of 1985, Abdoh would be involved in another production of King Lear — this time, performing as the Fool in a UCLA Extension workshop production directed by Robert Wilson, “chanting at times in Farsi, performing magic tricks, and adding a great deal of mystery to the proceedings,” according to David Rhodes, dramaturg for the production. Rhodes spoke to Abdoh about the workshop a number of times, and he believed Abdoh was “deeply influenced by it, though very much wishing to separate himself as an artist from Wilson’s particular tone.” This anxiety of influence may have led Abdoh to omit the event from his résumé, even as he included his work with Wilson on KA MOUNTAIN GUARDenia TERRACE — which never happened.

The question of how much Abdoh borrowed or stole from other artists would last for years, all the more so because Abdoh made it his practice very early on to excerpt and adapt other people’s work and insert it into whatever piece he was working on without securing permission and, sometimes, without making it clear that a section of text was not written by him. In 1986, for Rusty Sat on a Hill One Dawn and Watched the Moon Go Down, Abdoh gave the actors a large section of text to rehearse without explaining where it came from. But Paul Verdier, who ran the theater where Rusty was produced, recognized the text as having come from a novel by Margarite Duras. He demanded that Abdoh not use the text, and Abdoh’s response was, frantically, to reshape and reword the passage until it no longer bore close resemblance to Duras. By his deeds, he was very much in the thick of the 1980s debate about the nature of plagiarism and intellectual property versus various “sampling” and pastiche techniques of postmodernism.

For most of the 1980s, Reza’s work was produced by a woman named Marta Holen. Holen was a generous supporter of Abdoh’s work and became an important friend to Reza, a friendship that never ended. But Holen lacked the venue or clout to give Abdoh’s work the prominence it deserved, nor was there enough money prior to the productions at LATC to provide Abdoh with the technical resources to create the kind of spectacle for which he would later become known. The year after White saw Lear, Abdoh was given two one-acts by David Henry Hwang to direct on one of the smaller stages at LATC. The plays, As the Crow Flies and The Sound of a Voice, received mostly favorable reviews, but more important was the strengthening of his contacts at LATC. The contacts would take a few years to yield the high-profile mainstage production of Minamata, but Abdoh took advantage of the interim to write and adapt his first original play scripts A Medea: Requiem for a Boy with a White White Toy, Rusty Sat on a Hill One Dawn and Watched the Moon Go Down, and Peep Show all of which were staged in non-traditional ways. Medea was performed on a school’s basketball court; Peep Show, at a seedy motel named, ironically, the Courtesy Inn. Although videos and scripts for these productions are either nonexistent or of poor quality, the period in which they were made was clearly one of increasing productivity for Abdoh as a director and especially as a playwright.

With all of the aforementioned shows, Abdoh further distinguished himself as one of the few original theater artists in L.A., even when a given critic had mixed feelings towards the piece at hand. More and more, critics not only praised the director for a powerful image or scene but began describing him as a prodigy of sorts. For example, Richard Stayton, writing in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, criticized the Hwang one-acts as “overwhelm[ed]” by “Abdoh’s ambitions,” but at the same time called Abdoh an “astonishingly precocious 22-year-old [sic] Italian-Iranian [sic]” with “visions beyond the range of many professionals twice his age.” While reviews of King Lear took Abdoh to task for being derivative, Rusty received a review from The Los Angeles Times that compared Abdoh to Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman and argued, “If he has created something occasionally reminiscent of the work of others, it is nonetheless very much his own.” He was beginning to find his own style. By January of 1988, about a year after Rusty‘s last performance and a few months after his summer productions of Peron and King Oedipus (produced in repertory), The Los Angeles Times Magazine picked him as one of 88 “Angelenos to watch” in 1988.

Abdoh’s career clearly had momentum, but there were omens of a difficult decision he would soon have to make. When Robert Koehler reviewed Peron and King Oedipus, staged in repertory in the summer of 1988, he favorably compared Abdoh’s Oedipus to a recent adaptation by Steven Berkoff, but assailed Abdoh’s company of actors. “It makes the Berkoff version,” Koehler wrote, “in retrospect not so much false as glib. Now all Abdoh needs is Berkoff’s cast, or a cast of that caliber, and he would have a world-class work.”

Tony Torn called Peep Show a “transitional work.” It was Torn’s first time working with Abdoh, but he said Peep Show was important for Abdoh because he was “in transition with the company of people he worked with. He had a very close company of people in LA that he worked with for a long time. With Peep Show, he was beginning to want to broaden his horizons.” It was Abdoh’s first collaboration with co-author Mira-Lani Oglesby, and the first production in which he used videos and played them simultaneously with actors’ performances. According to Torn, familiar with Abdoh’s previous work, Peep Show was actually the first time Abdoh began to make rigorous demands on the actors in terms of physical movement and pacing. Of the actors who would go on to form Dar A Luz, Ken Roht and Torn performed for Abdoh for the first time with Peep Show. The only other Dar A Luz members were Tom Fitzpatrick, who had worked with Abdoh since Farmyard (1985), and Brenden Doyle, who first joined Abdoh for Rusty, and more important, became Abdoh’s life partner and an important source of support for Reza until he died.

After Peep Show, which won the L.A. Weekly‘s “Production of the Year” Award, whatever “transition” there was vis-à-vis the members of the company came to an end — explosively — with Reza’s first opportunity to work on the LATC mainstage. Ten years later, the wounds for many of the actors who were left behind are still surprisingly fresh. Abdoh at least notified some of the actors from his older de facto company that he would not be using them for his production of Minamata. Ironically, his two oldest friends in the company, Meg Kruszewska and Ron Frank, received the worst treatment, the silent treatment, probably because Abdoh was embarrassed and ashamed to tell them that they would not be cast. In 1991, Kruszewska told the L.A. Weekly, “Once [Abdoh] had gathered the attention and publicity for his projects, he betrayed just about everyone around him. He views people as disposable.” In 1999, she still remembered how Reza led her on about getting a part for her in Minamata even after the rehearsals had begun.

Naturally, the actors who appeared in Minamata and the shows that came afterwards see the event differently. Fitzpatrick, also in the L.A. Weekly‘s profile of Abdoh, explained, “What happened to Reza is a problem anyone faces when they rise from obscurity to a position where they can realize their dreams — how do you take your friends along? Reza didn’t know how to handle it. He wasn’t able to use everyone, nor was he able to confront people face to face.” Torn, too, looked on the changing of the guard as “an early sign that Reza was brutal enough to do what he felt like he needed to do to move his work forward.”

At about the time he did Minamata, Reza Abdoh found out he was infected with HIV. At home, with his friends, he wept. On the printed page and in the theater, the sorrow released itself as rage. He was still grappling with anger he felt from the events of 1979, but now the level of rage compounded exponentially. This was reflected in his productions, which, after Minamata, would push the limits of the phrase “fast and furious.” For Hip-Hop, as he was working on Alan Mandell’s long monologue with LATC literary associate Laurel Meade and dramaturg Morgan Jeness, Abdoh said he wanted the speech to have the effect of an onstage war — to stop everything, to be absolutely devastating. Hip-Hop would be tame compared to Bogeyman and Law of Remains, not to mention Tight Right White. His final work, Quotations from a Ruined City, could only be called “quiet” or “contemplative” in comparison to the works that preceded it and not at all in comparison to the work of most other theater artists. His anger may have been fading in his last years, but not much.

With Bogeyman, the issues of originality and plagiarism would return with a vengeance. Abdoh’s collaboration with Mira-Lani Oglesby ended bitterly with the 1990 New York production of Father Was a Peculiar Man. More and more, Oglesby bristled at the changes Abdoh made to what she wrote; she bristled at the lack of attention she received for her efforts. Tony Torn remembered that, before flying to New York to work on Father, he saw Mira-Lani conducting the Playwright’s Lab she ran as an Associate Artist at the LATC, and he was struck by one of the comments she made. “You have to realize that directors will care nothing about your script,” Oglesby counseled the other playwrights, “You have to completely let go because you will never have a say in what’s being done.” Said Torn, it was clear “some frustration was brewing.”

After Father, neither Oglesby nor Abdoh relished the idea of working together on the next project, Bogeyman, at the LATC. But Oglesby and Abdoh had been discussing ideas for Bogeyman for years — at least as early as 1989. As the LATC geared up to do Bogeyman, the city of Los Angeles pulled the plug on the LATC’s funding, and it became clear the theater would be forced to close. Bogeyman would be the LATC’s swan song. The theater, predictably, was in a state of semi-chaos, as staff looked for work elsewhere and prepared to close the theater, packing old scripts to be archived, packing everything. To add to whatever state of siege there was, Oglesby proceeded to sue Abdoh for not listing her as a co-author. According to Diane White, none of Oglesby’s work appeared in the final text or production. Oglesby never returned my calls to present her side of the story. At any rate, the two settled out of court, according to White, with no one winning any financial sum of note.

Prosperity Cut Short

THE CAPTAIN: The bill comes for the orange skies, the bodies, and the rest. I cannot pay it… Better to die. I lean back. I close my eyes. The archangels applaud.
—Abdoh, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice

With the close of LATC, there was little question of Abdoh’s moving to New York. “We can’t underestimate the impact that the closing of LATC had,” Tony Torn explained.

Dar A Luz organized before LATC closed. The first time I really was aware of us being a company was in the month before we did Bogeyman, he threw together a workshop in New York that we did on Ninth Avenue and 24th Street which he said was a Bogeyman workshop, a workshop developing for Bogeyman. But it actually was a caldron for the company and a caldron for Law of Remains.

The move to New York eventually brought Abdoh the increased exposure he sought, but slowly, piecemeal, and with more difficulty than perhaps he or Diane White anticipated. White speaks to this day in angry tones when she discusses not having been able to get a critic from The New York Times to come and review Tight Right White, but she exaggerates the lack of coverage Abdoh received for his other shows. The New York Times, The Village Voice, American Theatre, and TheaterWeek covered most if not all of his productions and, at the very least, almost always acknowledged that they were something unusual and extraordinary.

Thanks to an international tour in 1992, Abdoh would finally have the opportunity to see his mother again, after a separation of close to 15 years — the American Immigration and Naturalization Service had refused to let her in the United States. In New York, Abdoh would also solidify his relationship with Anita Durst, who first performed under his direction in Father Was a Peculiar Man and went on to become a member of Dar A Luz. Her father is head of the Durst Corporation, a large real estate company in New York City. The Durst family gave and continues to give to numerous causes, and Dar A Luz became one of them. In addition, many of the actors in Reza’s company found benevolent landlords in the Dursts.

As was described in the introduction, after 1992 Reza’s renown grew and his health deteriorated. Long before he died, the illness was challenging his ability to work. During the Los Angeles workshop for Quotations from a Ruined City, Abdoh was hospitalized for two weeks with pneumonia, and some in the cast questioned whether Abdoh would recover sufficiently to resume the project. But Abdoh carried on until the bitter end. In the spring of 1995, he went on a respirator the day rehearsals were supposed to have started for A Story of Infamy. That was the beginning of the end. Two days before he died, Diane White was somehow able to help his mother to secure entry into the United States. On May 11, shortly after his mother arrived, he died.

L to R: Juliana Francis, Tom Fitzpatrick, Gerard Little, Tom Pearl, Reza Abdoh, Rafael Pimental.

L to R: Juliana Francis, Tom Fitzpatrick, Gerard Little, Tom Pearl, Reza Abdoh, Rafael Pimental.

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