Playing Arabs and Army

Six unnamed Palestinian combatants seek cover in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.  With the Israeli army outside, this soon becomes a siege that will last thirty-nine days.  In that time, the combatants tend to their wounds, argue over their methods, and fantasize about the coffee and cigarettes awaiting them when the fighting is over.  The Americans and Europeans try to negotiate a truce, but inside the church this is treated with a knowing cynicism.  The Israelis also make a go at it, but their efforts prove ineffectual.  When the mother of one combatant is given a bullhorn, she quickly goes off script: “They want me to ask you to surrender.  But I swear to God and all that is holy, if you turn yourself in, I will disown you.  I swear if you surrender, I’ll cut the breast that nursed you.”

Nabil Al-Raee’s The Siege, currently running at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, homes in on the Israeli occupation to render its effects in human terms.  The objective is expressly political: The Freedom Theatre, the Palestinian company producing the play, declares in the program, “Cultural resistance begins with giving space for people to discover themselves, to define their identities … When we know who we are we can tell our own story.”

It’s a noble mission, and one that comes with a cost: in 2011, TFT’s co-founder, Juliano Mer Khamis, was “brutally assassinated by an unknown enemy of culture and freedom.”  Which is why it is all the more painful to report that The Siege is not a very good play: while the actors are quite strong, the narrative plods along with a dull sense of inevitability.  The text is neither radical enough to rouse us from our political apathy nor compelling enough to succeed dramatically.  These characters are thin representations, often reciting exposition or delivering stilted dialogue with a faint echo of advertising clichés: “Leadership is about your attitude towards certain situations,” one combatant says to another, “about how you deal with the most critical issues, and about setting an example for the rest to follow.”  No doubt, there is much to applaud in this company; but as theater, The Siege is too timid, too unambitious, and frankly too undercooked to merit much more from its audience than an impassive shrug.

The Siege runs through October 22nd at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.  566 LaGuardia Place  New York, NY.  1 hour 30 minutes.  No intermission.  In Arabic with English supertitles.

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Aaron Botwick

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