Halifax playwright adapts novel about human relations in wartime


“Shahin Sayadi” was in his early teens when the Iran-Iraq war started with a surprise attack on Abadan, an Iranian industrial city across the arvand river.

He didn’t know then his father would be one of the 21 civilians killed on that day in September 1980.

While hundreds of thousands of people fled, a small number of civilians — including Sayadi’s cousin, Ali, a soccer star — chose to stay, living in a city under siege.

Chess with the Doomsday Machine is the story of those who remained. The play, which has its Canadian premiere Thursday to Feb. 14 at Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth, is an adaptation by Sayadi of the novel of the same name by Iranian author Habib Ahmadzadeh.

“It’s the story of Moosa, a young paramilitary guy in Abadan, about a year into the war. The city is surrounded on three sides. His job is to identify a very smart radar system, the Doomsday Machine,” explains Sayadi, who came to Halifax a year after the war ended in 1988 and is artistic director of Onelight Theatre.

Moosa encounters a small band of civilians who could not or would not leave Abadan. They include a mother and daughter who are outcasts, a priest who believes that divine intervention will protect him from the bombs and an engineer who has been abandoned by his family.

Onelight premiered Chess With the Doomsday Machine in Abadan, then took it to the Fadjr International Theater Festival in Tehran in a whirlwind journey that lasted two weeks.

The story — a very free adaptation of a good-sized novel — is told with five actors: Hugh Cape, a young Dalhousie University graduate as Moosa, and Theo Pitsiavas, Jeff Schwager, Karen Bassett and Sarah-Jean Jones, who play multiple characters, says Sayadi, still jet-lagged after returning from Iran less than 72 hours before.

Though it is set in war, it is not a play about the issues of war and doesn’t glorify the defence against Saddam’s military. “It doesn’t mention the enemy. It’s about what happens between a group of misfits, the human relations. We are telling a story against war, a story against violence.”

It is told mostly through movement, and is in English and Farsi, though there is minimal dialogue in either language.

“I wanted to make it accessible for both audiences,” Sayadi says.

“I didn’t want voice-overs or subtitles. I thought about using my voice in English and in Farsi, but the actors did such very good work, I didn’t see the need for it.

“And Jeff always says the music is like another character that is very present on stage during the show.”

The music is by Iranian-born Montreal composer Kiya Tabassian.


Chess With the Doomsday Machine was work-shopped in Canada and Iran for over three years and was in rehearsals for almost two months before the troupe headed to Iran.

Sayadi identifies with the novel by Ahmadzadeh, a war hero who became a filmmaker and writer and now is a university teacher, with its mentions of streets and neighbourhoods with which Sayadi is familiar.

And it was ideal to become the third work in his Civilian Project, a series of plays about civilians caught in the middle of wars.

Onelight produced The Toxic Bus Incident, by Montreal playwright Greg MacArthur, at Neptune’s studio theatre in April 2009, and Sayadi’s autobiographical Return Ticket: Halifax-Abadan-Halifax, staged at the studio theatre in November 2009.

Return Ticket dealt with Sayadi’s trip back to Iran to research his soccer star cousin who stayed in Abadan through the 1980s but never joined the army, and died years ago from the effects of injuries sustained in chemical attacks during the war. Sayadi says he got in conflict with the authorities in Iran for poking his nose into that story and others.

In Iran, Sayadi’s actors met some of the characters in the novel and saw places where incidents in the play happen. “It became more tangible for the actors and affected their portrayal,” says Sayadi.

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