Sunday, May 13, 2018

"All the Shah's Men"

All the Shah’s Men
Matthew Spangler

Ken Boswell, Christian Haines & Annamarie MacLeod
If one wanted to find out the origins of today’s deeply divided and dangerous issues between the U.S. and Iran, there is probably some semester-long, poli-sci course a local community college is offering on the subject or a number of detailed books that could be read, including a 2003 book by New York Times correspondent, Stephen Kinzer.  Or, there is the alternative of seeing all the incredible, quite unbelievable events unfold before one’s eyes as that same book, All the Shah’s Men, is translated into a mind-blowing, true tale of spies, subterfuge, and sabotage in Matthew Spangler’s play by the same name, now in world premiere by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival.  Vicki Rozell directs a production at the tiny Royce Gallery that has all the suspenseful intrigue, white-knuckled pace, and plethora of known and never-heard-of characters one might expect to find on a big screen, Hollywood production – all accomplished with a talented, multi-faceted cast of five in a space barely the size of a small living room.

There was actually a time in the early 1950s when Iranians and their democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, admired the U.S.  The press in the U.S. and around the world in return poured praise onto the Iranian leader (named Time’s 1951 “Person of the Year”) as he made a case at the United Nations against Great Britain’s attempt to block Iran’s nationalizing its own oil supply -- a treasure the British had developed to the point of pulling in 84% of the oil revenues, with only 16% going to a very poor Iran. 

While the world applauded the small country’s stand against the British Empire, the U.S. and its new conservative president, Dwight Eisenhower, were not about to stay neutral (except in the public eye). Instead, they decided to utilize the relatively new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to partner with Britain’s covert agency, MI6, to create a coup d’état to overthrow the legitimate, Iranian government for one to be run by their hand-selected, General Zahedi, arrested by the British during WWII as a supporter of the German Nazis.  That move was to be a first step to make way for Mohammed Reza Shah eventually to take over Iran – a leader that the U.S. and Britain believed could be more in their control than Mossadegh and who would allow them jointly to control the oil supply.

Christian Haines & Farshad Farahat
It is the complicated, incredulous set of events occurring in just a matter of days in August 1953 that All the Shah’s Men lays out in a play that often feels like an hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute accounting of the takeover.  After setting up a few major lead-up events in 1951 and ’52 (including the appearance of the legitimate Prime Minister before the U.N.), Matthew Spangler leads us through the plans and tactics of one spy – the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt named Kermit – ones that often sound as if coming from DC Action comic book.  Events recounted on the stage seem time and again to be too crazy to be true but have been included by the playwright as gleaned from the history books: Roosevelt meeting under a blanket in a taxi with the Shah; Eisenhower and the BBC including certain, publicized phrases on air in order to persuade the Shah to go along with the coup; code names like “Operation Boot” and “Operation Ajax” (the latter purposely named after the toilet cleanser).

Christian Haines as Kermit Roosevelt is eerily an everyday looking-and-acting person one might meet on the street and never even notice or to talk at a party and soon forget.  He likes his Vodka; he plays Cribbage to win; and he likes listening to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from Guys and Dolls.  But as a CIA operative in an adolescent spy agency still making up its own rules, Mr. Haines’ Kermit (code name Jim, undercover as a Canadian oil man) shows the capacity to transform into a diabolically intense, near maniac, willing to throw large amounts of cash to buy rioting crowds to go to the streets to bomb stores and mosques in order to set up the kind of chaos for a quick changeover of government. 

William J. Brown III & Christian Haynes
Mr. Haines never allows his Kermit to flinch at the idea that what he is doing is unethical, anti-democratic, and totally un-American.  His logic becomes the same that will be used time and again in Central America and the Asia Pacific in the years to come: Stop the Soviets and Communism at all cost -- even in this case when the threat is one he and the CIA mostly make us and then actually start to believe.  Christian Haines is superb to the point of sending shudders down one’s spine as he orchestrates chaos -- sometimes with cool and collective smoothness as he advocates in straight-face “build democracy through a coup” and sometimes with eyes glazed with dire determination as he angrily spits out lies that he wants put in the money-hungry press as truth.

The other four members of the cast each play multiple, often extremely varied parts in order to populate the story with its many players – most based on real-life people.  Among other roles, William J. Brown III is Kermit’s State Department contact and sometimes partner, Roger, who vacillates widely in his reactions to what Kermit is planning.  While he has the look of disgusted shock when he says, “This whole thing is wrong,” his Roger is also one who can become almost like a kid in his ecstatic excitement in a “we did it” state of joy when the coup appears to succeed.

Ken Boswell is Robin Cochran, a fictional British imperialist and MI6 agent who has no love for the Iranians, and is Walter Smith, a real CIA agent who implants in Roosevelt’s mind the idea of using “stop Communism in its tracks” as the reasoning for the coup.  Mr. Boswell is also Loy Henderson, Ambassador to Iran during the early 1950s, who with gentle and trusting voice and empathetic eyes both makes false promises and declares outright lies to the legitimate ruler of Iran, who believes in their long-term friendship.

Annamarie MacLeod is Anne Lambton, a MI6 operative, who often serves as the stern-faced, take-no-prisoners narrator of the story.  She is also a very social, well-dressed Canadian diplomat -- a fictional Kate Bentley -- who works out of the Turkish embassy (since Canada does not have its own); who clearly has eyes on the Canadian oil guy, Jim (code name for Kermit Roosevelt); and who has a secret of her own that will add a further twist of mystery and intrigue to this story.

Fashad Farahat & Ken Boswell
The evening’s starring award, however, must go to Farshad Farahat who takes on the most diverse set of roles of all.  As the aging and ailing legitimate ruler, Mohammed Mossadegh, Mr. Farahat is bent over, shaking slightly, and holding onto a cane that is the difference between his barely standing and his collapsing.  His Prime Minister Mossadegh speaks with a quietly spoken passion but one full of fire backed by facts that could surely have swayed a listening, world audience. 

As Mustapha (code name, Bosco, as in the chocolate milk mix), Mr. Farahat is the proud, bold, and steely eyed right-hand assistant of Kermit Roosevelt – the Iranian insider who uses the ready made stacks of CIA cash to produce mobs full of instant anger and destruction and to buy the press with any story manufactured.  He can look Kermit in the eye and tell him in no uncertain terms just why he is helping him with a reason that has implications to this day.  Farshad Farahat is equally impressive as the historically real players, the society boy Shah (who rather likes his code name, Boy Scout) and the black-cloaked, dripping-in-evil, General Zahedi.

The number of characters involved, the number of often surreal events and turns-of-events, and the many ongoing implications evident to our present day situation could easily make this less-than-two-hour play overwhelming and confusing.  But such is not the case for the script created by Matthew Spangler and as directed by Vickie Rozell.  There are a few extremely short scenes among the twenty-plus that probably could be edited out of existence without losing much; but that is to be expected in a world premiere.  Overall, this fine production of All the Shah’s Men by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival is an A+ first-outing and one that hopefully will have legs for further productions – including those for students in high schools and colleges studying how recent events of their grandparents’ life times have shaped the dilemmas that they are inheriting to solve in the future.

Rating: 4 E

All the Shah’s Men continues through May 20, 2018 by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-499-0017.

Photo Credits: Gregg Le Blanc

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