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Theatre in Review: Wrestling Jerusalem (59E59)

Aaron Davidman. Photo: Ken Friedman

"It's complicated." Aaron Davidman's opening line gets a substantial, knowing laugh from audience members who have come to see his piece about the ever-confounding issue of Israel and the Arabs. Making a point that hardly needs stating, he offers a litany of reasons, each of which is the prime cause -- the original sin, if you will -- of the current, seemingly unresolvable, standoff: It all goes back to the events of 1948, which the Arabs call the catastrophe and the Israelis call the war of independence. No, it's the fault of the decisions made by the British just after World War I. No, it's the Six-Day War, or maybe the Yom Kippur War. Or the various massacres in 1929, 1982, 1994, or 2004, each side taking a turn in trying to annihilate the other. Politicians, from Golda Meir to Barack Obama, are inveighed, as are the Intifada, the settlements, AIPAC, the Orthodox, Evangelical Christians, and -- of course -- Bibi Netanyahu. And on and on and on.

What follows is Davidman's investigation of this unanswerable question, represented by a chorus of voices on all sides of the issue. Working in a style that will be familiar to fans of Anna Deavere Smith or the theatre troupe The Civilians, he gets inside the hearts and minds (and vocal tics and mannerisms) of a vivid gallery of characters, each of whom presents a different perspective. Most of them are mordant; a few are deeply unsettling, even terrifying. The overall effect is riveting.

The son of Yiddish-speaking parents from Brooklyn, Davidman had a classic Jewish-American leftist upbringing. ("Woody Guthrie. Emma Lazarus. Harriet Tubman. Chana Senesh. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. All the names of cabins at Camp Kinderland.") And, for someone of his sensibility, his trip to Israel proves disturbing in many ways. On a bus to Ramallah, he witnesses firsthand how the Israeli police humiliate the Palestinian passengers. Arriving at a checkpoint, he is stunned by the size of the wall, which comes complete with towers and a barbed wire fence. Noting that the Palestinians call it "the apartheid wall," he finds himself struggling to tamp down thoughts of the Holocaust. "Six million ghosts chase me as we drive through. And I wonder if they will ever rest."

But Davidman is also a good listener, and his character portraits are remarkable for their conviction. Farah, a Palestinian woman who was educated in the West and works for the United Nations, notes the debilitating effect of being constantly surrounded by fences and security guards; she notes that it can take her hours to get to East Jerusalem, a ten-minute drive from Ramallah, and she is equipped with the necessary travel papers. A former member of Special Forces describes how the arrest of a Palestinian can escalate until it ends in the razing of the subject's house: "So you find yourself doing, maybe for the right purpose, or for your need, doing very bad, very immoral things. Eh, the situation makes you." A self-described Democrat from America insists that it's an us-or-them proposition and the ends justify the means; the real problem, he insists, is that "some people" are uncomfortable with "Jewish power."

Everywhere you look, the ironies compound themselves. An academic notes how some on the left elevate anti-imperialism "to a kind of principle," a line of thought that ends in their supporting Hamas, which is anti-labor, anti-gay and lesbian, anti-feminist, and dedicated to killing Jews. Avram, a religious Jew, is serene in the knowledge that Israel is destined to be the home of the Jews, and that no compromise with the Palestinians is possible: "You want me to give them the keys to Jerusalem? Jerusalem. The seat of the throne of God? The heart of the world? They will slaughter us." An equally eerily assured Palestinian, who lost the land his family worked for five generations, notes that the war will be won with demographics: "We are a patient people. We will wait. Population is the best weapon." He adds: "You must not worry. The Jewish will be fine. They will be cared for. Allah is merciful. Allah loves the Jewish. They were his first people. But we will rule this land again." Given everything we have heard so far, these words send a cold chill through the theatre.

In perhaps the saddest and most shocking image, at a dinner in the occupied territories, Davidman encounters a teenage boy who, taunted by Israeli soldiers, joined a group of rock-throwing kids. He was shot by a soldier, and now his intestines don't work. A friend, a Palestinian activist, says she is trying to raise money for him to have surgery -- in Haifa. If Davidman is scrupulous about letting each individual have his say, something tells me he identifies the most with the American rabbi who insists that Judaism's greatest achievement was to establish a principle of the interconnectedness of all things, exemplified by the story of Abraham, which pronounces an end to human sacrifice. Then, practically vibrating with rage, he adds, "That was the radical message, three thousand years ago. And we're still killing each other. We're still sacrificing our children. We still claim God as 'my God,' ownable, knowable. We know what God wants. We don't know shit."

Everywhere Davidman looks, there's another point of view, another twist in the tale, another conflict: democracy versus security, armed insurrection versus nonviolent protest, faith versus skepticism versus humanism, hope for the future versus the crushing certainty that the other can be wiped out. The collective effect of this chorus of voices is a kind or music -- harsh, discordant, atonal - and utterly gripping. The news that Davidman reports in Wrestling Jerusalem may be dismaying, even at times horrifying, but, as he renders it, it is impossible to look away.

In a production such as this, it's difficult to know how much of the effect of the show is attributable to the author/star's commitment to his material and his abundant technical gifts as an actor, and how much is due to the shaping hand of the director, Michael John Garc├ęs. In any case, the effect is seamless. If Nephelie Andonyadis' scenery and costume design are fairly basic -- she does contribute a beautifully painted drop -- Allen Willner's lighting creates a striking variety of looks and moods, and Bruno Louchouarn's original music and sound design -- including cheering crowds, car horns, and ambient street sounds -- help to evoke the feeling of daily life in this deeply divided land.

Necessarily, the ending of Wrestling Jerusalem disappoints: Having established a dialectic that has no foreseeable resolution, there's little Davidman can do but simply bring the show to a halt. This is hardly his fault: If he had a resolution, he'd be working for the United Nations, not performing Off Broadway. Still, this is no small achievement, and even if you think you're sick of reading about the endless churn of violence and politics in this part of the world, you're likely to find yourself hanging on every word. Watching Wrestling Jerusalem, it's impossible not to think of Via Dolorosa, David Hare's magisterial solo piece on the same subject. Davidman's show can more than stand up to it, even if the trip proves to be more dolorous than ever. -- David Barbour

(1 April 2016)

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