Vladimir Lenin isn’t known for providing the punchlines to many jokes. Nevertheless, he is the subject of one of the most audience-pleasing remarks in Oslo, which I’m not going to spoil, only to say that it is delivered to perfection by Dariush Kashani, who plays the Palestinian official Hassan Asfour. I asked Kashani about that moment this week in his dressing room before an evening performance.
“I’m surprised every time the audience laughs at that line,” Kashani explained. “I’m also happy to get the response. It’s important that my character provide an avenue of levity.” He added: “He could come across as a pretty grim Communist ideologue otherwise.”
Kashani understands why the joke works, “even though a lot of people in the audience may only have a five-percent understanding of who Lenin was.” Further: “The joke depends less on your amount of knowledge than on your ear for delivery. I appreciate a dry sense of humor, and I try to convey that in that scene.”
Kashani understands Asfour as much more layered than the doctrinaire, slogan-spouting Communist he may appear on the surface. “He’s lived a life of exile,” Kashani said. “He’s very comfortable with isolation, but he’s come out of that isolation to fight for the Palestinian cause.” Asfour is also comfortable sitting on the sidelines, watching his colleague Ahmed Qurie, the PLO’s finance minister.
Why did Yasir Arafat, the head of the PLO, task a hard-core ideologue to be part of a peace negotiation? “Because Arafat knew he was loyal,” Kashani responded. “Arafat also knew that he could handle Abu Ala” (as Qurie is known to his familiars).
From various real-life counterparts to the play’s characters, Kashani gleaned essential information about his character. “I learned that Asfour would report back to Arafat and that Arafat would sometimes turn Asfour and Abu Ala on each other.” Kashani added: “There is mistrust between us and the Israelis but at some level there is also mistrust between Abu Allah and Asfour. We all have to learn to work together.”
Kashani’s personal history also involves conflict and exile. “I was 9 years old when my family moved from Iran to the United States,” he said. “We moved the same week in 1979 that the hostage crisis began.”
Kashani’s grandfather had worked as a chef for many years for the Shah, but with his wife had already moved to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. “From 1976 to 1979,” Kashani said, “my mother worked in a nursery in Teheran. At the end of that period, some local people made the connection between her and her father’s association with the Shah. She was mugged and beaten up.” Within a month, the family had left and resettled in the Washington, D.C. area.
Kashani got involved in theater as a child, his early career cresting with the role of the King in The King and I during his senior year in high school. “I don’t really sing, so my performance was in the tradition of Yul Brynner,” Kashani said. “That was the beginning of my playing ‘ethnic’ roles.”
Before 9/11, Kashani said that he and actors of similar background mostly played hospital interns and cab drivers and guys who run falafel stands. “After 9/11, we shifted into high gear. From 2002 to about 2007, there was a lot of work playing terrorists or people involved in Iraq War stories.”
A full list of television credits (“24,” “Lost,” “Madam Secretary”) shows up on Kashani’s resume, but for him Oslo is proving more satisfying than anything else he’s done. “This has been the highlight of my career, no question,” he said. “I knew I would learn a lot working with Bart” – Bartlett Sher, the production’s director. “And I have. Plus all the cast has become a team and we genuinely like working together. It’s been a very communal experience.”
Of that, I suspect, Vladimir Lenin would approve.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.