Monday, July 30, 2007

"Crudeness is Necessary for Clarity"

"The Black Eyed" at New York Theatre Workshop, July 28, 2007

Betty Shamieh's play about the female Palestinian experience covers a lot of ground, some more, some less familiar. The audience enters as one actor is already onstage on the pepto-pink plywood set. She lies there silently until the show begins. Waiting? Punished? Eventually, we find out.

This pink environment is first presented as some corner of heaven when three women join the first by scrambling over the high back wall. All are in search of a man who died in an act of martyrdom. Supposedly, there is a room in heaven for martyrs only.

First up is Delilah (Emily Swallow), looking for Samson (yes, really). As she tells her tale of a young Philistine woman led astray for political means after her own brother was killed at Samson's hand, she is quickly called a whore when she reveals that she did love Samson. When she questions that response, she is told "Crudeness is necessary for clarity." (Maybe I didn't spend enough time in Sunday School - who knew that the biblical Philistines were actually Palestinians?) Ms. Swallow has the most fun of the four women, and gets some of the best lines. On the topic of seduction, she says, "Men can never tell the difference between a beautiful woman and someone who is dressed like one." For all her protestations, she remains in love with Samson and has come to find out if he has forgiven her for her betrayal.

Next we get Tamam (Lameece Issaq) as the sister of a soldier fighting the Crusaders. Her political spin turns on a more violent note and feels a bit more modern. She is looking for her brother to see if his soul has made it to heaven even though she was only able to bury the one part of it should could identify, his hand. Ms. Issaq maintains a quiet intensity in her role, suitable to her character's station in life. Her tale of rape and torture by the Crusaders during their invasion points up similarities

Aiesha (Aysan Celik), our original character in waiting is exposed as the first woman suicide bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Celik is the weakest of the four actors, struggling with transitions from anger to cynicism to taunting. Her bomber had dreams of 100 men awaiting in heaven, "all shapes and colors" to satisfy her every physical desire. This rang the least true of the stories during the evening.

Finally, we meet The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), who was on one of the four planes on September 11, 2001. Ms. Serralles' Architect is written as a obsessed woman with low self-esteem who is only articulate when she discusses architecture (she tells you this more than once, just so you're clear). As her monologue wanders from the tale of the half-Palestinian man with whom she fantasizes living an unfulfilled life, to the moment when she heard the hijackers take over the plane, Ms. Serralles has some gripping moments. It seemed at times, though, the script kept her story from being more compelling, by interjecting the "inarticulate" back in, just to remind you that she's supposed to be inarticulate. She's looking for the hijacker whose eyes met with hers before the plane went down to ask him what she might have been able to say to stop their plan.

While Ms. Shamieh's play provided some insights for me into the minds of Palestinian women over the ages, there didn't seem to be anything new in what they had to say. Director Sam Gold and his uneven cast can't overcome the awkward transitions. Paul Steinberg's pink environment thrusts the cast toward the audience, with no apparent means of escape. The result was sometimes more that the cast looked trapped, rather than the characters they played. Lighting by Jane Cox was a bit more effective.

This is the second play I've reviewed at NYTW. I must say that I particularly like one feature of their playbill, which is a production history from when the playwright started writing to the current production. Ms. Shamieh began this journey in October of 2001.

NYTW is offering a discount for the remaining performances.

Tickets for all performances July 17 – August 19 are just $35 each (reg. $50).

Use code BEBLG28 when ordering.

To purchase tickets, call TeleCharge at (212) 947-8844 or visit

New York Theatre Workshop also offers both Student Tickets and CheapTix Sundays.

CheapTix Sundays: All tickets for all Sunday evening performances at 7pm are just $20 each! Tickets are available in advance but must be purchased at the NYTW box office on a cash-only basis.

Student Tickets: Full-time students with a valid student ID may purchase $20 tickets for all performances (subject to availability). Limit one ticket per ID. Tickets must be purchased in person and require an ID at the box office.

The NYTW box office is located at 79 East 4th Street (between Second Avenue and Bowery) and is open Tuesday - Saturday from 1pm - 6pm.

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