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Garden Speak

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 9, 2017

The unique power of live performance to plunge you into perspectives and experiences you can't otherwise imagine is on full—if not exactly electrifying—display in Garden Speak, an unusual type of performance art piece from Tania El Khoury that is playing at New York University's Abe Burrows Theatre as part of The Public Theater's Under the Radar festival. It obliterates lines between countries and cultures and differing political opinions, true. But much more interesting is the extent to which it mingles the dead and the living: to the point that the former are literally speaking to you from beyond the grave, and the latter may be about to crawl into one of their own and witness first-hand how things look, sound, and feel from down there.

The buildup to that moment, though, is more technical in nature. Upon arriving inside the theater, you're asked to remove your shoes and socks, dressed in a rain slicker, and handed a flashlight and a card containing instructions on how to proceed. You're then seated on a bench and exposed to the ghostly sounds of war, struggle, and strife that lead you to one of 10 graves (marked only by simple plywood tombstones) positioned around a patch of soil in the center of the playing area. By digging in the ground at the appointed place, you expose the name and voice of a person who died in the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad. You then lie with your ear to the ground to hear that story, told as if spun by the victim.

This consumes only between half and two-thirds of the 40-minute "performance"; to say any more would probably be to spoil the few surprises El Khoury offers. Suffice it to say, through what happens next, you're brought even closer to the person who died, and are spiritually joined with them in the isolation and loneliness of being laid to rest in a random safe spot rather than, say, consecrated ground. And if you've already progressed from bystander to gravedigger to corpse, your final act is to commune with those left behind and join them in propagating the memory of someone who could all too easily be forgotten.

It's all fascinating, and I will admit that the work's unique structure did have what seemed to be its intended impact on me. I could not stop thinking about the death and the considerably more unknown life of my charge, a 22-year-old student named Ahmad who was killed by sniper fire and buried in the garden of a stranger's home, and I became increasingly aware of not just the other similar figures around me but also their connection to the greater world (and universe) outside my own perception. I wanted to reach out and understand them, but that just wasn't possible—the dead get no such opportunities, after all. And knowing that Ahmad was real, and El Khoury worked with the friends and family of him and the others to give this memorial a special kind of authenticity, forced me to consider him a human being and not a mere audio recording.

But my entire reaction came through the externalities; I couldn't shake the feeling the showmanship was designed to provide the emotional connection the reconstructed story doesn't have the time or the complexity to do on its own. I never formed a true bond with Ahmad as anything other than a generic mortal being, which risks diminishing (if not cheapening) his life and struggle. He is special and deserves to be remembered, as everyone is and everyone does, but I didn't feel at the time—and still don't—that I truly knew him. And given the politically charged circumstances of his death, isn't there a strong possibility that those he left behind have ensured that the Ahmad I "met" is not the one who really existed?

Such questions surround any death, of course, and, ultimately, I'm not sure it matters what's knowable and what isn't. The issue nagged at me because El Khoury encourages it through what she presents and what she doesn't, but she has kept me thinking about who Ahmad was, how he lived, and what impact he had—and whether, when my own time comes, how my own aftermath will compare with his. El Khoury may take a sedate, twisty path to that destination, but in convincing you it's a place worth exploring, she engages and challenges you in a way the specifics of Garden Speak otherwise can't.

Garden Speak
Through January 9
NYU Tisch School of the Arts Abe Burrows Theatre, 721 Broadway
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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