By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - As the clock strikes 8 p.m. Baghdad time, the curtains sweep apart at the Iraqi National Theater in what actors hope is a return to regular night-time performances 6-1/2 years after the U.S. invasion.
The name of the performance, "He who seeks sweet things must also endure bitterness," reminds the hundreds of spectators of the troubles their country has been through -- and why being able to stage a play in the evening is such a big deal.
The actors wear white in a reference to peace; and the play is about two tribes who feud over a marriage they both opposed only to be united in love and harmony at the end of it.
"Let's be happy, why should we alone among all the people of the world be sad," the actors sing.
A sharp drop in sectarian violence in Iraq over the past 18 months has allowed Iraqis to tentatively re-establish normal lives, and nightclubs, country clubs, restaurants and galleries are somewhat cautiously getting back into business.
Occasional massive suicide attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents, such as those on government buildings on August 19 and October 25, remind Iraqis the growing security is fragile.
The National Theater tried to launch night-time performances in 2008 with a comedy show, but that lasted only two months.
It tried again in September as Baghdad's night-time curfew grew shorter and Iraqis became more willing to go out at night.
"We really missed shows like this. It reminds us of the lovely old days," said Harith Saleem, 32, a postgraduate student who attended a recent performance with his wife.
BLAST WALLS AND BODY SEARCHES
Sealed off by blast walls and with just one entrance, the theater is protected by Iraqi police, who search visitors.
Security is not the only challenge. Trying to get Iraqi actors to return to their country has proven difficult.
Many Iraqi actors fled to neighboring Syria to escape the violence unleashed by the 2003 invasion and the rise of religious militia which imposed draconian intolerance.
"It (the play) talks about loving Iraq and returning to it," said producer, Issam al-Abbasi. "In the past of course, when there was stability in the country, there was always a big turnout. Now just being able to stage a play is an achievement."
The theater can seat around 1,300 people and was built during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In those days it largely featured major works by authors such as Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Now some of the pieces are more homegrown.
Comedy is all the rage as Iraqis grow accustomed to making fun of their leaders and laughing at their own misfortunes in a sharp change from the dictatorial days of Saddam Hussein.
"Before the change of the regime, theater was not bold, but now jokes are expressed freely," said actor Nahi Mehdi.
Iraqi actress Inaam al-Rubaie was one of the few who did not leave during Iraq's dark days of sectarian slaughter.
"The minder is still living inside us, but not like before. We can talk freely," she said.
On days when huge bombs kill dozens, the theater is all the more packed. It's as if the spectators want to send a message to the attackers they are not afraid, and life goes on, she said.
(Editing by Michael Christie)