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Theatre in Review: The Truth Has Changed/Grey Rock (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Top: Josh Fox. Photo: International Wow Company. Bottom: Fida Zadan, Ivan Azaian, Khalifa Natour. Photo: Grey Rock.

One of the benefits of the Under the Radar Festival is the light it shines on the many ways of attacking political material. For example, Josh Fox understands better than most the consequences of living in post-truth America. A theatre artist -- he founded the International WOW Company -- turned activist, he won acclaim for his 2010 documentary, Gasland, which details the environmental horrors unleashed by the fracking boom of recent years. The Village Voice called the film's argument "irrefutable" and the Australian newspaper The Age noted that it "details the contamination of drinking water caused by the drilling for natural gas and explores the callous corporate mentality behind it." The film won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Then, as the details in The Truth Has Changed the knives came out.

A 72-page "hit sheet" created by minions of the energy companies -- who, strangely, somehow knew what was in an unreleased film -- was distributed. Negative op-ed pieces were commissioned. Death threats -- to Fox and his loved ones -- were made. He became convinced he was being tailed and menaced by motorcyclists, who circled his home, revving their engines.

Most of the time, Fox's corporate enemies were hellbent on creating a phony debate that reframed him as an axe-grinding crank and neutering his work with an avalanche of dubious "alternative" arguments. But he had done the hard work of research: As he notes, people sitting across a kitchen table from you don't lie, especially when talking about the rashes, dying animals, and cancer clusters that plagued their lives. (If you don't believe Fox, see the current film Dark Waters -- based on a Nathaniel Rich story in The New York Times Magazine -- about a lawyer who spent the better part of a quarter century trying to bring DuPont to account for poisoning a community with the runoff from one of its factories.)

The Truth Has Changed is a kind of Cook's Tour through the Hadestown of our toxically dishonest political environment. Among the stops is the war in Iraq, which, according to a dozen cooked-up rationales, was going to usher in a Middle East utopia and which instead has run longer than Wicked, with no closing notice in sight. There's the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which British Petroleum despoiled a good chunk of Louisiana, further befouling it with a dispersant that proved to be the kind of cure that outdoes the disease. And there is the currently unfolding climate crisis -- no, strike that, disaster -- about which plenty was known thirty years ago but no corrective action taken, thanks to the efforts of oil companies to muddy the waters with counterarguments consisting of nothing but self-serving nonsense, soothingly presented with a thoughtful scratch of the chin.

And you don't need me to tell you that we live in a world where, each day, scientific fact and proven knowledge are subject to death by a thousand tweets. Fox, mostly seated at a desk and speaking into a mic -- a strategy reminiscent of Mike Daisey's scalding solo shows -- weaves together a comprehensive narrative, revealing how many of the world's worsts ills are the products of disinformation, blame-shifting, personal attacks, and other forms of dishonesty. Things are only getting worse, thanks to Facebook, which, he argues persuasively, has become a kind of Keystone Pipeline of rumor, smears, and unsourced allegations, allowing mendacity to flow like the mighty Mississippi. (The likes of Google and the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica -- organizations that hoover up every bit of available human data, usually for nefarious purposes -- are also subjected to his savage exposure. For that matter, certain liberal darlings -- even Barack Obama -- are made to take their lumps for mouthing corporate talking points.)

Even at its (seemingly) most paranoid, The Truth Has Changed has the bitter ring of truth, which is why Fox and his co-director, Ron Russell, might do well to reconsider one or two undermining decisions. The piece's most regrettable aspect is its underscoring with creepy, horror-movie music, most (or all) of it seemingly controlled from a laptop onstage. At times, it competes with the text, becoming a positive annoyance. Other stagy tricks -- which include Fox lurching around with an umbrella to the strains of Lena Horne singing "Stormy Weather," backed by video images of catastrophic weather events -- have a trivializing effect; the facts are powerful enough by themselves. For that matter, Fox's climactic attempt at envisioning a better, happier world feels oddly false, a bone tossed in the audience's direction after his ninety-minute jeremiad.

Indeed, the dire vision of The Truth Has Changed -- surprisingly -- isn't depressing; instead, it makes one good and mad. This is especially true of a video sequence that serves as a lowlights reel of world-historical whoppers from the last half-century: Lyndon B. Johnsons using the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate the Vietnam War; Colin Powell insisting that Saddam Hussein constituted a global nuclear threat; and the Nayirah testimony, in which a supposedly anonymous fifteen-year-old -- in fact, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US -- peddled to Congress horror stories about Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies out of their hospital bassinets. (That this merely recycled British World War I propaganda, positing the idea of feral German soldiers eating brave little Belgian tots, seems never to have occurred to anyone.) The most delicious excerpt -- so good that Fox shows it twice -- features Mark Zuckerberg cringing as he fumbles for an answer when Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez asks him, point-blank, if he intends to permit political campaign lies on Facebook. This titan of American capitalism never seemed more like Eddie Haskell.

On a rather milder note, Grey Rock devises a rather whimsical approach to the problems of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Yusuf, a widower with an adult daughter, has holed up in his shed, working on a project that has his loved ones and neighbors scratching their heads. Little do they know he is building a rocket for his own personal moonshot. In a way, the unlikelihood of the endeavor is the point. Its very audaciousness is to send the message that Palestinians aren't natively victims; rather, they are capable of greatness -- or at least of dreaming very, very big.

As the news gets out, the neighborhood falls into an uproar and, for a while, it looks like the Israeli army will shut it down; alarm bells are rung when our hero persuades the devout Sheik to let him use the minaret of the local mosque as the launch tower. For all the insight that the piece offers regarding the characters and their profound frustrations, the play has a certain high-concept Hollywood quality, especially in a subplot featuring Yusuf's daughter, Lila, who is engaged to Jawad, a disapproving businessman but attracted to Fadel, a deliveryman -- who, with his solid grasp of physics, solves most of the plan's logistical problems. At the point that Yusuf becomes the toast of YouTube, it's easy to feel that an ongoing political agony is being treated a tad too lightly. A last-minute twist, exposing Yusuf's hidden motive, is too little too late, serving mostly to point out the implausibility of the entire enterprise.

Still, the playwright, Amir Nizar Zuabi, has a strong feel for lives left permanently on hold in the political deadlock of West Bank -- even if, as director, he could cut down on some of the on-stage fidgeting. In the lead role, Khalifa Natour solidly anchors the action, investing his character with a rueful awareness of his many wasted years and casually landing any number of laughs. The rest of the cast is affable, including Fida Zaidan as Lila, Ivan Azazian as Fadel, Alaa Shehada as Jawad, and Motaz Malhis as Sheifk. As it isn't every day that we get new works written from the Palestinian point of view, this one has a certain value, no matter what. If Grey Rock isn't the most notable offering at Under the Radar, I suspect it may become one of the festival's biggest audience pleasers. -- David Barbour

(14 January 2020)

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