Live: Kronos Quartet, Tony Kushner And Persepolis Author Marjane Satrapi Join Forces For Bizarre Experiment "Exit Strategies"

Steven Thrasher
Foreground left- Kronos Quartet's David Harrington embraces Marjane Satrapi; Center-Rula Jabreal; Right-Jeffrey Zeigler
"Exit Strategies": PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature
Kronos Quartet with Rula Jabreal, Tony Kushner and Marjane Satrapai
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wednesday, May 2

Better than: The funniest right-wing parody of what they think liberal Manhattanites do in their spare time.

"This is a very odd evening," Tony Kushner said to great laughter at one point, "and I don't mean that in a bad way."

I was not sure whether to believe the sincerity of his second thought there. The PEN World Voices Festival of World Literature is an ambitious project, with literary events happening all over the city in all kinds of venues this week. (Today, for example, will see Symphony Space host the second ever performance of John Cage's experimental "How To Be Good.") It was the brainchild of Salman Rishdie, who was on hand to introduce the quirky experiment that was "Exit Strategies": the Kronos Quartet collaborating with playwright Tony Kushner, Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi, and Israel-born writer Rula Jabreal.

No one seemed to know how this experiment would work, but as nervous as Kushner seemed throughout ("I really don't like to experiment in public, but here we are," was a typically uncomfortable outburst from him, along with the musing that the evening was like family therapy, "but with a string quartet"), Kronos never seemed daunted. Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler strode onto the stage and proceeded to play with confidence for nearly the next two hours. No matter how absurd their spoken-word accompaniment got, they kept on playing stoically, like veteran, unflinching straight men in a slapstick comedy routine.

Kronos has a willingness to try almost anything and collaborate with nearly anyone. As Rushdie himself pointed out in the introduction, Kronos has collaborated with "just about everyone on the planet," from DJ Spooky to Philip Glass to "Noam Chomsky. Imagine trying to collaborate with Noam Chomksy!" Rushdie bellowed.

The evening began with Kronos playing music that was almost ambient in nature, and lights coming up on author Rula Jebreal while Marjane Satrapi and Tony Kushner sat in the dark (Kushner was visibly uncomfortable). Jebreal launched into a series of "questions" she was posing to the audience. But after haranguing the audience about how she was not declaring answers, but merely "asking questions"—about U.S. foreign policy, Republicans, corruption and the "legalized corruption" known as "lobbying"—it became obvious she was not asking "questions" at all. Jebreal was beating the audience over the head with rhetorical questions whose answers were obvious, the kind that implied only an unethical, idiotic moron would disagree with her.

This did not work particularly well with Kronos' music, and felt rather forced and awkward.

Satrapi was next up. It was amazing, even at a distance, to see how perfectly the illustrator had captured her own eyes in her childhood self in her drawings in Persepolis. Of the three authors, she was the one who was least comfortable with the English language, which seemed to work; she said in a straightforward manner that she did not like speaking over the beautiful music of the Kronos Quartet and had every intention of doing so as little as possible. In her short talk, which she delivered without notes, she spoke about themes that would be familiar to any reader of Persepolis: how she hated that before 1979, Iran was a country known for "Princes and flying carpets" and how after that year it became a culture-less, fear-riddled concept to the rest of the world. To Satrapi, stripping all the people of Iran of their individual identities was a great shame, as was thinking about "the Middle East," a region of multiple countries on two countries. Between her self-deprecating desire not to talk, her lilting voice, and her comic timing, her section actually worked pretty well with the music.

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