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REVIEW: "AVAAZ" — SCR's 25th Annual PPF Festival

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Avaaz is both an exploration and a witty celebration of a life (albeit a complicated one) well lived.

Welcome to Nowruz — the Iranian New year, and the first day of Spring. Roya, a fabulous Iranian Jewish woman, invites you into her humble Los Angeles home for a modest gathering of two to three hundred people. She’s preparing a feast, but the main attraction is Roya sharing her great American journey from Tehran to “Tehran-geles” (also known as Westwood California). They say that on Nowruz, the souls of ancestors come alive and visit. Perhaps that’s what’s happening here tonight. Or maybe it’s just the strong Persian chai.

South Coast Repertory (Artistic Director David Ivers and Managing Director Paula Tomei) brings you the story of the American journey through an Iranian American lens with the world premiere of avaaz by queer Iranian American playwright Michael Shayan, one of the country’s most promising emerging writers. avaaz is a funny and deeply personal tribute to the playwright’s mother, who portrays her with heavy doses of candid humor in a brilliant solo performance.

Directed by Tony Award-nominee Moritz von Stuelpnagel (HAND TO GOD), avaaz runs April 29-May 27 on the Segerstrom Stage, and replaces PRELUDE TO A KISS in the season lineup. avaaz is one of the anchor productions of SCR’s 25th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, the nationally renowned showcase of new plays and one of the key initiatives in SCR’s play development program, The Lab@SCR.

Traditions, humor and passionate storytelling transform this tale of family bonds into an unforgettable theatrical event, with a set by Tony Award-winner Beowulf Boritt (ACT I) and costumes by Emmy Award-winner Joshua “Domino” Schwartz (WE’RE HERE). avaaz was also one of the hits in the 2022 Pacific Playwrights Festival, where it was featured as a reading.

Mother Roya came to LA at the height of the Iranian revolution, leaving her country and family behind in search of a better life. Instead, she finds heartbreak and loses herself in her struggle to survive. Now in her mid-50s, Roya must confront the ghosts of her past, bringing great humor and heart to universal questions and themes which have been especially important in her life.

“Avaaz is about my mother’s escape from Iran during the Revolution in 1979 (it’s a comedy),” says Shayan. “In one version, I play my mother – every gay man’s dream! – and embody her journey, while also looking at our relationship through lenses of gender, sexuality, and body. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Revolution, and the play is my way of examining and reclaiming our history.”

“I was working with director Moritz von Stuelpnagel on readings of the play (which my mother came to – she had notes!). I wrote the play while in school. It might be the scariest thing I’ve written, and also the most liberating. Performing it is like an out-of-body experience. I’m an Emmy nominated writer (!) but my mother’s biggest pride is that I’m a Persian tabloid COVERGIRL!”

“She’s a fabulous hostess and so of course there’s music, dancing, and lots of Persian tea. Avaaz is in many ways a ritual that very much involves the audience, and we’ve come up with some exciting ways to bring the festivity of the play to life in our new reality. It’s also an excuse for me to wear a kaftan – not like I need one.”

But when Shayan calls his piece “the most personal play I’ve ever written,” you begin to understand this is a story about a bond that goes deeper than simply personal.

Shayan wrote avaaz after finally getting his mother to tell her story in an interview. For years, she had parried her curious son’s inquiries about her past life and background with a joke or gentle deflection. When she finally relented and Shayan set down the recorder, a new world literally opened up.

“I think that at its core, this is a play about a mother-son relationship, and the character asks questions that have always felt urgent to me,” he said. “There’s also, of course, the ongoing, women-led revolution happening in Iran, which adds layers of complexity and urgency. There are so many parallels between what my mother experienced over 40 years ago in Iran and what’s happening now.

“This detail isn’t in the play, but she and her sister were actually taken to the same detention center as Mahsa Amini, whose death in police custody sparked this revolutionary moment. My aunt was held for three days and received 75 lashes for not wearing hijab. One call coming out of Iran is ‘Be our voice,’ and I think that’s part of what we can contribute as artists—in some small way, we can amplify the voices of those who are putting their lives on the line, crying out for ‘Woman. Life. Freedom.’”

Michael Shayan’s avaaz is at turns hilarious and heartwarming. Provocative, reminiscent and compelling, the story not only traces his mother’s journey to America, but it also chronicles her daily struggles and reveals a fortitude so familiar to so many Americans.

Shayan, a graduate of Harvard with a Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting from Brooklyn College, was a Consulting Producer for the Discovery+ series “THE BOOK OF QUEER” and worked on the Emmy Award-winning HBO Max show “WE’RE HERE.” avaaz received development grants from the Sundance Institute and Theatre Aspen, with additional development support from the Ojai Playwrights Conference and La MaMa. Shayan was a Lambda Literary Playwriting Fellow and is developing an original work for Audible. His playwriting credits include the Geffen Playhouse, New York Stage and Film, and Rattlestick, among others. At age 13, he was the youngest member in the history of Hollywood’s Magic Castle.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel is one of the most acclaimed theatre directors in the country, with three Broadway credits: Theresa Rebeck’s BERNHARDT/HAMLET, Noël Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER (which earned three Tony nominations) and Robert Askins’ HAND TO GOD. von Stuelpnagel’s credits include the West End productions of Rebeck’s MADHOUSE and HAND TO GOD, which earned an Olivier Award nomination. His off-Broadway credits took him to MCC Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Ma-Yi Theater Company/The Public Theater), Manhattan Theatre Club, Studio 42, Lincoln Center and Ensemble Studio Theatre. von Stuelpnagel has also directed AVA: THE SECRET CONVERSATIONS by Elizabeth McGovern, currently running at the Geffen Playhouse.

The design and creative team include Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award winner for ACT ONE by James Lapine), set design; Joshua “Domino” Schwartz (Emmy Award winner for “WE’RE HERE”), costume design; Amith Chandrashaker (Drama Desk Award winner for PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC by Joshua Harmon), lighting design; Noel Nichols, UptownWorks, sound design; Yee Eun Nam, projections design; Lauren Lovett, vocal coach; Abigail Katz, dramaturg; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA, casting director. Maisie Chan is the production manager, Natalie Figaredo is the production stage manager, and Kathryn Davies is the assistant stage manager. David Ivers, SCR Artistic Director; Paula Tomei, Managing Director; Martin Benson, Founding Artistic Director; David Emmes, Founding Artistic Director. avaaz has received generous support from Honorary Producers Talya Nevo-Hacohen and Bill Schenker. SCR cultural partner is the Farhang Foundation.

Avaaz, starring Michael Shayan, is presently playing at South Coast Repertory from 4/29/2023 - 5/27/2023; Performance Times are Weeknights: 7:30 p.m., Fridays: 8:00 p.m., Saturday matinees: 2:30 p.m., Saturday evenings: 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees: 2:00 p.m. 100 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are now on sale and range in price from $27 to $98, with additional discounts available for educators, seniors and theatregoers ages 25 and under. Tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at (714) 708-5555.

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photo Credits: Jenny Graham


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