Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The flexible Dowling Studio Theater is configured with a thrust stage. Scenic artist Nephelie Andonyadis has saturated the stage floor and the wall behind with a beautiful swirl of earth tonesbrowns, tans and reds, cement, sand and clay, reaching up to resemble the Judean hills, with a sliver of indigo sky on top. To pulsating sounds of Palestinian music, Davidman enters, subtly moving in time to the music. He spouts a Pandora's box of possible causes for the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, among them blaming all sides and all epochs from ancient conquerors to today's headlines. From this sea of discordance, he launches out on his journey, meeting a wide swath of individuals in an effort to find the root of it all.
He meets both Jews and Palestinians who lost loved ones amid the exploding bombs in both Jerusalem and the West Bank, Jews who decry the oppression by fellow Jews against Palestinians, and others who believe the Palestinians are their mortal enemy; Palestinians who yearn for a civil two state solution, and others who are confident that it is only a matter of time before Israel is gone, and all its territory is theirs again. This spectrum of individuals makes up the play. Most are focused on the present, but he includes characters who tell us their interpretation of the history of that small corner of the Earth, going back as far as the Roman Empire, and gives attention to the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Davidman becomes each character in turn, with that character speaking directly to himand through him, to us. In most cases, we are not party to a conversation back and forth, between opposing viewpoints, but rather, become open vessels, receiving the full messageboth the facts and the irrefutable feelingsthat each of these compelling individuals is eager to convey. Only on occasion is Davidman himself a presence, such as being drawn into a heated argument with an American Jewish medical student working in the West Bank who has become passionately involved in the Palestinian cause, or reliving the anxiety that crept into him as the only Jew traveling on a bus in the West Bank. For the most part, though, he allows his subjects to tell their stories directly and without interruption. Davidman both writes and portrays each person with dignity, revealing the logic that supports their beliefs, and giving credence to their experiences.
The transitions between characters sometimes flow seamlessly, one to the next, but more often are accomplished with Davidman dancing, sensuous movements accompanied by melodies that are strikingly middle eastern. Are they Israeli or Palestinian? It becomes apparent that it would be hard to draw the two apart. The characters themselves are differentiated by Davidman's remarkable talent for accentsAmerican, Eastern European, British, Palestinianand body language to create a recognizable person. Posture and voice also differentiate gender. No doubt Davidman has been given strong guidance in developing his characterizations by director Michael John Garcés, but the play and its performance are so indivisible, that the director's contribution is hard to discern from the whole. This is a good thing, as there is nothing, no directorial flourishes, to take our eyes, ears and minds off the riveting presentation of the work.
There truly are no low points in Wrestling Jerusalem, but several encounters stand out as especially powerful. For example, the exposition of a psychologist who explains the passage of trauma from one generation to the next, with the message "I am not safe" transferred from parents to their infant children, the rantings of a rabbi who rejects a Judaism that justifies bombs that kill many innocents in pursuit of one who is guilty, and his passionate interpretation of the Jewish watchwords known as "The Sh'ma" as a call to a unified world where divisions among creeds and races are no more, or the Israeli military man who attempts to make the case that he, and Israel, are acting at a high level of morality ... for wartime.
Early in Wrestling Jerusalem, Davidman relates a creation story from the Kabbalah, the compendium of Jewish mysticism, in which he describes a beautiful crystal, with the power of its beauty so compressed that it explodes into many shards, the shards becoming hidden all around the world. It is the duty of human beings to find these shards and repair the broken crystal; for Jews it is the idea called Tikkun Olam. Toward the end he expresses the desperation of locating these shards in his encounters with these people, and finding that he cannot fit one to another. As he told as at the onset, "It's complicated."
Wrestling Jerusalem is the first installment of a series at the Guthrie titled Singular Voices, Plural Perspectives: A Curated Series of Performances and Community Dialogue. On opening night, Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj introduced the play and series with the adage, "an enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard." Perhaps, were all those with a stake in this heartrending conflict to truly listen to these stories, the enmity between them would cease. It is a lot to hope for, but Aaron Davidman, by giving life to this litany of stories that in isolation seem devoid of hope, builds a bridge that may be our best chance to cross the currents that divide us and find common ground.
Wrestling Jerusalem continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through November 1, 2015. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $29.00 to $35.00; Senior (65+), Student (18+) and Guthrie Season Ticket Holders - $26.00 - $32.00. Public Rush tickets for unsold seats 30 minutes before each performance. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to guthrietheater.org. For information on the ongoing tour of Wrestling Jerusalem, go to www.aarondavidman.com.
Writer: Aaron Davidman; Director: Michael John Garcés; Scenic and Costume Design: Nephelie Andonyadis; Lighting Design: Allen Willner; Original Music and Sound Design: Bruno Louchouarn; Choreographer: Stacey Printz; Stage Manager and Technical Director: Wolfgang Wacholovsky
Cast: Aaron Davidman