Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
Religion can be curiously accommodating when it comes to the predilections of the ruling class. In Afghanistan, the tradition of bacha bazi (“boy play”)—sponsorship or outright enslavement of prepubescent dancers—allows for an aboveboard form of man-boy love. “Men have needs,” the wealthy Jahandar (a stern Jonathan Raviv) explains to his latest acquisition, Paiman (the touchingly reedlike Troy Iwata). “Boys who we train to dance…tend to our desires. It is a sacred role.”
In the unusual, profoundly affecting chamber musical The Boy Who Danced on Air, inspired by a 2010 Frontline documentary, we first see boy and master in silhouette, projected onto a homespun scrim to accentuate the disparity in their sizes. An Unknown Man (Deven Kolluri, his singing subdued but spellbinding) narrates that initial encounter, and resurfaces from time to time to observe Paiman’s turmoil as he adapts to a new dual function: show pony in competitive dance-offs and petted intimate of the man who owns him. At least Jahandar, professing a particular fondness, promises to forgo the common practice of renting out his prize property.
A rival dancer, Feda (the sensual Nikhil Saboo), helps the boy make sense of his new circumstances; their relationship is adversarial at first, but Paiman is so innocent and forthright that Feda can’t help softening. An intense, forbidden alliance grows between them, conveyed in soaring duets. Creators Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne amp up the drama in the second act, and push it further still in a coda. Their musical, optimally staged by Tony Speciale, taps into a universal source of pain and confusion: that phase of youthful innocence when, unable to fathom the adults who control us, we wishfully mistake them for gods.
Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex (Off Broadway). Music by Tim Rosser. Book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne. Directed by Tony Speciale. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. Through June 11.
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