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With Shakespeare, Kabul seeks a better tomorrow

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Shakespeare has come to Afghanistan.

Four centuries after the famous bard's death, one of his plays has been adapted for the local culture in an effort to help revive a once-thriving theater scene and to promote peace in a country riven by ethnic hatred and still wracked by violence after decades of war.

''Theater is the best way to communicate messages in Afghanistan, whether it be about peace, democracy, or women's rights. It's much more popular than television," said Aziz Elyas, an Afghan playwright. ''But during the Taliban's time, it wasn't allowed. They said Islam forbid it."

The art form, though, did not fade, and the US Agency for International Development has even started using roving troupes of actors to put on plays in rural areas to educate people about legislative elections this month.

In the past week, ''Love's Labor's Lost," a Shakespeare comedy, has been performed in the capital to packed audiences of local royalty, diplomats, aid workers, residents, and street kids.

The play had been translated into Dari, one of the country's two main languages, and the plot recast so it takes place in Afghanistan with local characters, rather than the French ones Shakespeare used in 1594. But the central theme of love remains unchanged.

''Shakespeare is so adaptable because he writes universal truths of human experience," said Steven Landrigan, an education aid worker from Boston who helped adapt the play.

The adapted story is about a fictitious king of Kabul and three friends who vow to fast, sleep little, and have no contact with women, so they can study and become great scholars, reminiscent of the values the Taliban preached before the Islamic fundamentalist regime was ousted in 2001.

But the plan slowly unravels when a princess from Herat, a picturesque city in rolling hills in western Afghanistan, comes to visit with her three pretty handmaidens. The slapstick tale twists and turns with secrets of romance and mistaken identity.

''It's a story about the survival of romantic love in difficult circumstances, like in Muslim countries and especially Afghanistan," said Malcolm Jardine, from the British Council, which sponsored the show.

The play ran for five nights, the finale in Bagh-e-Babur, a park fiercely fought over during the civil war.

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