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Theatre in Review: The Vagrant Trilogy (Public Theater)

Rudy Roushdi, Hadi Tabbal, and Tala Ashe. Photo: Joan Marcus

Eleven years ago, The Public presented Urge for Going, a drama about a Palestinian family living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, circa 2003. It introduced Mona Mansour, a playwright with a strong voice and fresh point of view, but it was also somewhat static and lacking in drama. Still, it was a near-miss and it seemed clear that we would hear from Mansour again.

As indeed we have. "Urge for Going" returns, slightly rewritten, in a very different context, as the final act of The Vagrant Trilogy, an ambitious and thoroughly gripping drama about the price of exile and the disruptions of history. Tracing her characters across four decades and employing a clever counterfactual plot device, Mansour elegantly anatomizes the no-win plight of Palestinians displaced by the State of Israel. In exploring the varying choices available to her central characters Adham and Abir, the playwright makes clear that fate is ready to ambush them no matter what they decide.

In Act I, "The Hour of Feeling," Adham, an English literature scholar, is about leave for a conference in England that, he hopes, will help to launch an international career. Despite this momentous opportunity, he takes the time to fall in love with Abir, a young engineering student who, having earned a degree, is "supposed to wait at home for a husband." Despite the objections of Beder, Adham's tigress mother, the lovers are quickly married, heading off to London. Adham makes a hit and is taken up by the trendy, tippling litterateurs at University College -- but it is 1967, war breaks out (including the near-destruction of the Egyptian Air Force), and a crucial decision must be made. For Adham, the crisis is an opportunity, as his new colleagues dangle the possibility of a fellowship that will keep him in the UK. Abir insists that they return home immediately, furiously noting, "You don't get to pick and choose your traditions!"

The second act, "The Vagrant," jumps ahead to 1982. Adham's career has devolved to a position at a lesser London university where he is angling for a professorship. But, having previously been seen as an innovative thinker, his reluctance to embrace a postcolonial point of view -- quoting, Frantz Fanon, for example, and styling himself as a victim of empire -- means his chances are slipping away. Abir, who works as a translator, is engaged to Jawad, a London-born-and-bred engineer working on a plan to bring safe, inexpensive water to a Palestinian village cut off from its natural source by arbitrarily drawn borders.

That Adham and Abir are not done with each other is all too apparent, although they connected by conflict rather than affection. Unfolding in the background are the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which members of a right-wing Lebanese militia murdered thousands of Palestinian refugees, and the Hyde Park and Regent's Park bombings, in which the IRA struck out at the British Army. Adham's colleagues, practicing their own version of radical chic, are eager for him to speak out about Palestinian victimization, but when he applies a similar framework to Irish revolutionaries, he commits an unpardonable error; suddenly his career is on a fast track to nowhere.

Then again, the third act, "Urge for Going," offers a different outcome, exploring what might have happened if Adham and Abir had returned home and started a family. Stuck in a refugee camp -- "our temporary home for sixty years," someone notes -- they are crammed into a crumbling hovel with their children Jamila and Jul, along with Ghassan, Abir's brother, and Hamzi, Adham's sibling (who meets a terrible fate in The Vagrant that here is repealed). Jamila, at 17 a dedicated scholar like her father, is desperate to get a degree so she can study abroad. But, despite his many promises, Adham fails to fill out the paperwork that will allow her to take her final test. When she confronts him, he turns on her in fury, waving a decades-old passport that has expired, leaving him in a classic catch-22 situation. As Hamzi bitterly comments, "He can't leave the camp because he has no ID. But to get the ID he has to go to the West Bank! Perfect Lebanese logic!"

Mansour's alternate-scenarios structure is compelling on its own terms, yet it underscores her darker point, that individual choices mean very little in the face of world-historical injustice. Tellingly, she has Jamila fantasize a future for herself that sounds eerily like what happens to her father in "The Hour of Feeling," but, even if she beats the odds and gets out, what are her chances? The third act ends on a note of hope but, give the permanently riven nature of the Middle East, you're likely to leave the theatre with profound questions about what happens next.

Mark Wing-Davey's excellent production has been betrayed by fate as well, its opening having been postponed until nearly the end of the play's run. Also, at the performance I attended, the two leads were played by understudies. Fortunately, Bassam Abdelfattah is thoroughly at home in Adham's itchy skin, capturing the character's avidity for success, which gradually dims until he is the withdrawn, depressive figure of the third act. Similarly, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy's Abir, young and hungry for experience and always ready to argue, credibly ages into a symbol of endurance.

The supporting cast is especially deft at sketching in the diverse cast of characters. Osh Ashruf is especially good as George, a fashionable, cocktail-swilling socialist who, treading on Adham's territory (he is a Wordsworth specialist), laments that in "Tintern Abbey" the poet "backs off from an indictment of the landed class." Ramsey Faragallah offers sharp sketches as Adham's evasive advisor and as Ghassan ("the last remaining Arab Communist," in Hamzi's jaded formulation). Rudy Roushdi is assured as a "pan-Arabist" British scholar and as Jawad, caught in the crossfire between Adham and Abir. The dazzling Nadine Malouf creates a head-spinning gallery that includes the formidable Beder, Adham's cynical feminist colleague ("Look, to them, no matter what you do, you're political. Like me, being a woman."), and the determined-to-succeed Jamila. She also has a telling bit as a student with a grievance against Adham.

Allen Moyer's scenery and Greg Emetaz's projections take us from the countryside near Jerusalem to swinging London and the tumbledown Lebanese camp, aided by the sound design of Tye Hunt Fitzgerald and Sinan Refik Zafar, which makes good use of "To Sir, With Love" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway" as well as storms, explosions, news broadcasts, and more. Reza Behjat's lighting design creates a broad variety of atmospheres. Dina El-Aziz's costumes nail three different time frames and social situations, aided by Tom Watson's wig, hair, and makeup design.

It's another casualty of the pandemic. The Vagrant Trilogy, a work of tremendous historical scope and considerable political insight, is set to conclude its run this Sunday. This is a terrible pity; Mansour has given us a major new piece, which should be seen by a wide audience. Here's hoping it gets a return engagement soon and is picked up by resident theatres in many states. It forces us to look at recent history from a different angle and it says things we need to hear. --David Barbour


(12 May 2022)

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