In March 2003, President Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced his plan to end the violence in the Middle East. "We have reached a hopeful moment for progress toward the vision of Middle Eastern peace," he said. "America will be the active partner of every party that seeks true peace." Four years later, the moment seems less hopeful. (Although a cheery piece in last week's Christian Science Monitor did note that the search for tasty hummus has brought some Arabs and Israelis together.) As for America's partnership, we're sending Tony Blair over there, and we're also hosting two plays that discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Betty Shamieh's The Black Eyed and Ilan Hatsor's Masked. If, as Edward Albee once insisted, the health "of a society can be determined by the art it demands," then we and our commitment to the Middle East are feeling rather poorly.
In Shamieh's The Black Eyed, set in a grim afterlife, hell is other people. Also, it's low-ceilinged and pink. Four Palestinian women (the Biblical Delilah, a Crusades victim, and two contemporary gals) inhabit this rose-colored world. They discuss metaphysics, trade barbs, and debate entering "the room no one but martyrs have dared to go in." Though these women are specifically Palestinian and from distinct historical periods, Shamieh has an exasperating impulse toward the general. She wants to speak for all women, always, and in portentous poesy besides. The play's opening lines bode particularly ill. The character Aiesha intones, "Unanswered questions/Unquestioned answers/I do someone good dead/I do someone dead good." But no good can come of such wordplay.
Shamieh has clearly set herself difficult subjects, like Aiesha's query, "How do you survive in a violent world and not be violent?" Yet she hasn't thought through her arguments or her characters. The women speak in oracular pronouncements. Some receive an audience chuckle, like Delilah's claim that "Men can never tell the difference/between a beautiful woman/and a person dressed like one." But an assemblage of koans doesn't make a play. Director Sam Gold stocks the action with myriad light and sound cues, as though trying to distract from the play's hollow substance. It doesn't work. Nor can the attractive and able cast (especially Emily Swallow and Jeanine Serralles) veil the script's faults. One can't help wondering just how the play found its way onto New York Theater Workshop's stage. Perhaps as a belated apology for the company's failure to perform My Name Is Rachel Corrie.
Corrie's cancellation resulted in much ado, the sort of theatrical firestorm that the producers of Masked would kill to spark. Masked's posters prominently display the tagline, "An Israeli play about three Palestinian brothers." That blurb's far more shocking than the play itself. Hatsor's script, penned at the tender age of 18, concerns a trio of Palestinian brothers: a freedom fighter, a suspected collaborator, and a conflicted youngster. In the backroom of a butcher shop (hey, symbolism!), they argue about their allegiances and threaten one another with words, pistols, and cleavers. Like The Black Eyed, Masked sacrifices the particular for the all-purpose. It's unsurprising that the play has garnered dozens of productions across Israel and Europeexcept for the character and place names and one jar of olives, the action could take place anywhere.
Perhaps it's a fault of the translation, but much of the dialogue sounds achingly stiff and programmatic. Twists and revelations occur, but any experienced theatrical nose can scent them minutes off. Under Ami Dayan's direction, the actors ceaselessly pace and prowl the stage, as though looking for a way out. They don't find one. "It's a struggle," claims the rebel Na'im. You said it, brother.
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