Saffron conjures paradise for hopes and dreams

What a difference a day can make. On Wednesday night, the Albany Park Theater Project--one of the true theatrical treasures of this city--reprised its remarkable of "Saffron" at the Storefront Theater and offered audiences a glimpse of a nearly ideal multicultural world as embodied by the owners, employees and patrons of a family-run Persian restaurant in Chicago.

By Thursday morning, the terrorist attacks in London reminded us that all is not peace and light and understanding in this world, and that the little glimpse of paradise to be found in the Noon-O-Kabab Restaurant in Albany Park--one of the city's "port of entry" neighborhoods--may be more dream than reality. Dreams, of course, are essential for survival.

"Saffron" is the remarkable creation of APTP, a multiethnic gathering of teenagers and young adults ranging in age from 14 to 23 and possessing an ensemble spirit and slight-of-hand technique that suggests decades of stage experience. The actors work under the direction of David Feiner and Laura Wiley, with world music infusions from the musical director Colby Bessera and additional magic courtesy of a slew of designers. And what they have conjured together is some of the most riveting and imaginative storytelling---much of it based on interviews, and all of it embellished with the most artful choreography and music---to be seen on any stage.

This is a production in which pots and pans and kebab spears seem to dance; in which first love blossoms in multiple ways; in which the torture chambers of post-Revolutionary Iran are conjured to horrific effect by the most minimal means; in which the nostalgia for home is sung to the accompaniment of a guitar; in which the mad shifts of temperament of a young girl who seems to live in two places at once are made palpable; in which the teasing camaraderie of restaurant kitchen workers takes on the quality of a vaudeville act; in which the playful interaction of a mother and her restless child turns into a cat-and-mouse game; in which a tango sizzles, in which the aroma of a multicourse meal is conjured through the choreography of empty plates.

"We never planned to open a restaurant," says Kamyar, the droll owner of Saffron Restaurant (as Noon-O-Kabab is referred to in this production). Kamyar, played by the charismatic and wonderfully relaxed Jesus Matta (with Mareva Lindo as his sister), then goes on to explain how he and his family transformed a former Subway fast food joint into a hugely successful restaurant at the corner of Kedzie and Leland. And he recalls how an ex-gang member, Saul (the cocky and amusing D.J. Narvaez), became his head cook, grilling kebabs to perfection, turning out buckets full of rice and seasoning the food with saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, drawn from the stamens of crocus flowers.

The Mexicans and Iranians who work in the restaurant (played superbly by Ana Ovando, Max Demian, William Kiley, Sarah Stanciu, Daniel Cruz, Krystina Mikolowski and Rafael Foster) all have stories of their own, as do the members of the Amador family, who gather for a grand meal in the place (Lawrence Munoz, Lawrence Mangalindan, Ariel Rubin, Jennifer Nguyen, Sanny Chrik, Omolara Adeolu and Michael Nguyen). But it is the tales of the Iranian immigrants--and their lives before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran--that provide some of the most crushing moments. There is, in particular, brilliant work by Stanciu as a young woman torn between the traditions of her homeland and the freedoms of her new life. She remembers how furtively she had to act back in Iran, how her sister had to be left behind and how one rebellious friend was driven to madness (a harrowing scene evoked with little more than a small box on wheels).

Collette Pollard Witteveen's ingenious set--with a great garden wall, Persian-style tilework tables and arched panels that morph into hidden spaces--seems to contain the world. But when all is said and done it is these young actors who conjure the globe--not with their widely varied names or faces or voices, but with their wise hearts and their experience turned to art.