April 8, 2021 at 2:52 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
‘Rich Kids’ reveals a different perspective on Middle East

Javaad Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian in ‘Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran.’ (Photo courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

‘Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran’
Through April 18
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
On demand at Woollymammoth.net

Yes, it’s a story ripped from the headlines: After a night of drug-fueled partying, young Iranian scion and his pretty girlfriend are killed when she loses control of his canary yellow Porsche Boxster GTS and slams headlong into a tree.

But Javaad Alipoor’s “Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran” goes far beyond the account of these privileged twenty-somethings’ untimely demise. In fact, there’s little it doesn’t touch upon (history, nonlinear time, consumerism, climate change, entitlement, digital technology, cheap labor, and our relationship with earth), cramming almost everything that’s important into a mind-expanding, darkly comic, sometimes chilling, hour-long journey.

What’s more, Alipoor along with co-creator Kirsty Housley approach story telling in a savvy, layered way tailored to our times. Originally conceived for live performance, the work is now experienced simultaneously through video live stream, Instagram live, and a specially created Instagram feed @shoppingmallsintehran.

(“Rich Kids” premiered as a live performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 2019, and made its virtual debut earlier this year as part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater in New York.)

Seen in split screen from respective unadorned spaces, no-nonsense narrators Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian (both Brits with some Persian roots) ably prepare the audience for an interactive, nonlinear experience. They relay the story, their faces and voices interspliced with color, music, and video clips of a burning planet.

The story begins where it presumably would finish, the 2015 car accident that killed Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi, the son of a wealthy family, and Parivash Akbarzadeh, the more middle-class woman with whom he cheated on his fiancée. It then moves back in time incrementally — minutes, days, weeks, months, and years before the crash — exploring what might have contributed to the pair’s end.

From the narrators and Instagram, we’re fed a chronicle of the couple’s seemingly glamorous lifestyle — jaunts to Dubai, sushi dates at the posh Kourosh Complex, the high-end mall in northern Tehran where monied Persians do their power shopping.

Unlike Hossein’s father, a war hero turned shopping mecca magnate who grew quietly rich during a time of sanctions and austerity, the offspring of Islamic revolutionary elites don’t feel compelled to hide their wealth. On the contrary, many use Instagram to flaunt their assets, posting pics of bling, drugs, gilded hotel suites, and stacks of cash.

The info-crammed piece stretches back beyond the young elites’ ill-fated first meeting to the times of Iran’s corrupt shah, earlier colonization, the Aztecs and even Neolithic archaeological sites. And along the way, fun facts are shared. For instance, more pictures were taken every two minutes in 2012 than throughout the entire 19th century, and in 2020, about 1.4 trillion photos were snapped. Also, since 1948 every human has been born with slightly radioactive teeth.

And while it’s not essential to include Instagram, says Woolly, something would definitely be lost without it, says I. Moving your eyes back and forth between – in my case – a laptop and smart phone is nothing unusual, but for theater, it’s immersive in a different way.

Again, Woolly’s artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes has proved especially effective in presenting dynamic theater during the pandemic. In addition to expanding the digital experience, Alipoor’s new work provides a different perspective on the Middle East and — as noted in the company’s program notes — serves as a nice follow-up to Woolly’s earlier offering “This Is Who I Am.”

“Rich Kids” is a stimulating virtual piece, a standout addition to the many newly conceived ways of making and experiencing theater.

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