note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark
Assistant to The Director Salma Abu Ayyash
Set Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Lighting Design by Justin Townsend
Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker
Sound Design by Nathan Leigh
Properites Coordinator Sean A. Cote
Dramaturg Rena Gal
Assistant Stage Manager Mary Plant-Thomas
Stage Manager Dominique D. Burford
The playing area Susan Zeeman Rogers has made for Naomi Wallace's "Three Visions of The Middle East" collectively called "The Fever Chart" is a perfect square. At any moment, if attention should wander from the actors, one may see on three sides rising ranks of intent faces --- other people involved in the actions going on before them. I think of this as a metaphor for the unfortunate fact that anything seen is inevitably interpreted by the mind of the beholder. The Middle-East has been so violently overlaid by decades of warring rhetorics and unforgiving hatreds that it may be these gritty, poetic theatrical "visions", in no one's eyes, will escape distortion. I can only suggest that people who cannot leave their prejudgements and biases at the door stay, themselves, away from the play and let it speak only to fresh eyes. And, that said, I cannot speak of the beauties I found there without ruining the surprises that made them, for me, so moving. So go, read no more --- Experience The Plays, and only then come back, read my words, and then tell me what Your thoughts were.
I spoke seriously.
What I have to say will destroy the effect of what I think to be a magnificent evening of stunning theater. Consider this well before you continue.
The first thing to be noted entering the theatre is Justin Townsend's harsh light on Susan Zeeman Rogers' square arena --- an expanse of old tiles, occasionally chipped or cracked. Poking out of the flat surface bits of broken flower-like blue tile evoke the circle of perhaps an ancient fountain. There are background noises of animals and birds, for the program identifies this, for the first play, as an all but destroyed small zoo in Rafah, Palestine. The play begins with total darkness shattered by sudden bright light revealing a young man (Dan Shaked) in dusty Israeli fatigues, with a machine-gun slung barrel-down from his shoulder, pushing a wide old broom over the desert-yellow floor as he describes the few remaining motley denizens of his wrecked zoo --- damaged water-buffalo, one remaining monkey, a petulant porcupine.
Into his space comes a woman (Maria Silverman), richly dressed and orange-kerchiefed, singing a sad song. She is the proud, unforgiving mother of a loved girl killed by a perhaps accidental bullet through her chest. Ordered to go she insists she has something --- a few moments of time --- as a gift for the bewildered boy's mother.
Their confrontation is interrupted by Ken Baltin, an itinerant Israeli architect measuring for new constructions, who insists "What have we to build on except ruins from the past?" His own life --- begun as an idealistic Russian communist --- he says is a slag-heap of ruined idealisms in Russia, Siberia, America, and finally Israel.
When he leaves, the woman says her daughter died alone, so she had no chance to cradle her dying child in her arms. However, she says, a young Isaeli soldier fell, shot in the head by an unseen sniper, and when he cried "Hold me!" she did --- until He died. Then she tells that distracted boy, "That young soldier was --- you."
Wallace's brief plays are not factual, but surreal "visions" of fantastic plains on which things can happen she only wishes could take place. Her second "vision" begins factually enough in the waiting-room of a West Jerusalem clinic, as a young Israeli from Morocco (Harry Hobbs), mopping up after hours, tries to shoo away an insistent old Palestinian (Ken Baltin) who demands to see a young Israeli student-nurse (Najla Said) --- the girl this young mop-artist has hopes about. Calling it "Tanya" he makes love to his mop, then later pretends to turn the mop into the old man's son --- another casualty of war.
As the play unfolds, the old man and the girl talk of the ugly truths of cystic fibrosis --- which can stave off death some five to twelve years after a total lung-transplant. He insists he knows breathing exercises that can prolong the girl's life (She had the disease) --- and he reveals that it is his dead son's lungs, willingly given, that have kept her breathing so far.
Fantastic? --- Of course they are! These tales are as fantastic as the hope that what will be constructed on the ruins of the past may one day be a grudging structure of peace in which unforgiving adversaries can see, in one another, the same human pain.
After these admitted fantasies, the final monologue (by Ibrahim Miari) is almost an afterthought. It comes at last from one Iraqi, selling the last of his prized and beloved pigeons for food. An ex-army grunt, he shares memories of two things I'd heard to be true about the First Presient Bush's short first Iraqi War: that commanders sometimes used surrendering Iraqi soldiers for targets in turkey-shoots, and that blade-equiped American tanks neutralized Iraqi trenches by Bulldozing them by the mile, burying thousands of enemy troups in sand before they ever got a chance to fight.
Anything anyone says about the Middle East gives rise to uncompromising interpretation. But whatever you think of the scripts, I doubt anyone can fault the excellence of the cast's execution. Occasionally, my eye could catch across the way the faces of the audience --- rivetted on every word of action, intensely, silently interested --- as if afraid to laugh at what I saw as bits or jokes. Perhaps the Mid-East turmoil is no laughing matter.
But Naomi Wallace grinds no factions' axes. Her characters on both uncompromising sides of harsh conflict never give up their warring convictions nor their emotion-drenched sorrows. But, in those first two plays, they find reasons to look past hatreds to see, if only for a surreal moment, a glimmer of humanity with which to empathize. And the actors, in a kind of religion-blind and politics-blind casting under Elena Araoz's clear direction, bring those characters achingly alive.
Where, I wonder, does the The Underground Railway find such unexpected theatrical gems?