Backbeat: Opening Night of Shirin Neshat's 'OverRuled' at Performa 11
Backbeat: Opening Night of Shirin Neshat's 'OverRuled' at Performa 11

Performa
Shadi Yousefian and Moshen Namjoo in "OverRuled." (Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.)

On a brisk autumn night in New York, some 300-plus theatergoers, including David Byrne, art critic Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine), award-winning photographer Ghada Khunji, Sotheby's Programme Director Kathy Battista, and Performa Founding Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg, gathered at Manhattan's Cedar Lake Theatre & Studio for the opening night performance of "OverRuled," an electric piece by acclaimed Iranian artist and award-winning director Shirin Neshat ("Women Without Men") and commissioned by New York's new performance biennial, Performa 11.

Performa
Mohammed Ghaffari in "OverRuled." (Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.)

The show, which ran close to two hours and was written by father-son team of Shoja Azari and Berhang Azari, drew upon the ancient story of Persian mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj, who was dismembered by the limbs after being tried for heresy in 922 AD, as a comment on the current social and political conditions in contemporary Iran. The cast included many notable Iranian artists, including actor/director Mohammed B. Ghaffari, actor and satirist Kambiz Hosseini, and singer Shandi Yousefian (from the band Eendo), as well as acclaimed vocalist and musician Mohsen Namjoo, many of whom have faced persecution in Iran due to the nature and subject of their art.

Check out all of our Backbeats -- our exclusive look at the people behind the music business -- right here.

The capacity crowd, which filled the cavernous theater space, sat surrounded by actors clad in army fatigues and portraying jurors/the mob to the religious trial taking place on stage. The "defendant" in the piece was nameless and represented by four actors clad in all black - including Namjoo and Yousefian - who had begun the show in the audience, simultaneously suggesting that anyone could have been put on trial, and that everyone was.

Performa
Performers in director Shirin Neshat's production of "OverRuled." (Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.)

Namjoo, who has been referred to as "the Bob Dylan of Iran," composed all of the music for the show, including three new songs, one of which incorporated lyrics by iconic Sufi poet Rumi. "I didn't see the court as a real court," he said, after the show, about his initial reaction to the text. "[So I used music] to make the text dramatic. I told Shirin, I can see this [text] as a performance." As such, a five-piece electric band that included a drummer, keyboardist, guitar, bass, and trumpet, punctuated the action from the stage wings, and the final third of the show was marked by Namjoo's performance, as he sang and played setar under a spotlight, with little to no accompaniment.

Born in Iran, Mohsen Namjoo is known for pushing the boundaries of traditional Persian music. He has released four albums to date, including his breakthrough 2007 debut "Toranj." His most recent release "Useless Kisses," arrived earlier this year via Payam Entertainment. He lives in Oakland today.

Performa 11 is the fourth visual art performance biennial and takes place from Nov. 1 - Nov. 21 in New York. Performa was founded in 2005. In addition to "OverRuled," Performa 11 features 12 other major commissions.

Performa
"OverRuled" at Manhattan's Cedar Lake Theatre & Studio. (Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.)