Backstage

Musings on the Middle East

Anne Marie Nest, above, portrays young American activist Rachel Corrie, left, in
Anne Marie Nest, above, portrays young American activist Rachel Corrie, left, in "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a one-woman show based on Corrie's diaries and e-mails before her death in 2003. (Contemporary American Theater Festival)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Three of the four plays at next month's Contemporary American Theater Festival have volatile political edges. Even the fourth -- a comedy about a middle-class family's meltdown -- argues that the "pursuit of happiness" is less a right than a destructive obsession. The 17th repertory festival ( http://www.catf.org) runs July 6-29 in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Topping the list is "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," about the young American activist who was killed in 2003 in a pro-Palestinian protest in Gaza. One CATF board member and donor resigned and some regular subscribers canceled after Artistic Director Ed Herendeen chose the play, objecting to its critical portrayal of Israel. CATF Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen wrote in an e-mail to Backstage that subscriptions are "holding steady" compared with the previous two years. "Rachel Corrie" also provoked controversy last fall when the New York Theatre Workshop announced and then canceled plans to stage the solo piece, compiled by British actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner from Corrie's journal entries and e-mails.

Anne Marie Nest, who starred in "Mr. Marmalade" at Shepherdstown last summer, will star. Nest says her link to Corrie is less political than emotional. "Just understanding where she's coming from . . . wanting to fight for the underdog and wanting the world to be a more peaceful place and wishing that we were all better to one another than we are . . . all of those parts I immediately connected to," Nest says. She sees "a young woman who was passionate, but also scared and questioning and insecure and knew she didn't know everything. . . . Rachel's politics aren't as black-and-white as some people have painted them to be."

Jason Grote's fantasy/reality play "1001" also involves violence in Gaza. "I didn't set out to write a play that was entirely about the Israeli occupation. It is really a play about everything," he says.

He views "1001" as a "pastiche" influenced by such varied sources as "The Thousand and One Nights," Chekhov, Brecht, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said. The play begins with Scheherazade but morphs into a fraught love story between an American Jewish man and a Palestinian woman in New York who travel to Gaza. The two actors play both Scheherazade and King Shahriyar and the modern lovers. Because the couple were "incapable of getting together in real life, they had to get together in the imaginary world of the 'Arabian Nights' stories," Grote says.

At a recent Denver production, some people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian argument took offense, the author recalls, and the nonlinear narrative and unresolved issues frustrated more traditional audience members. "I want the audience to leave with more questions than answers," Grote says. "If these problems were really that simple, I think we would have solved them by now."

Lee Blessing's "Lonesome Hollow" isn't about the Middle East but is plenty political. Set in the "soonish" future, it depicts a distinguished photographer living in a completely isolated town where sex offenders are transferred after serving prison sentences. They can never leave and private guards wield stun-gun power or worse over them. The photographer's portraits of underage nudes have gotten him in trouble with a legal system that no longer distinguishes among art, porn and sexual assault.

"I didn't write the play because I cared terribly much more than anyone else about sex offenders," says Blessing bluntly. Many of them "certainly should never be in the street again. But we have in this country a tendency to toss out a life in order to get a quick fix on a problem. . . . We've made it too easy to deprive groups of people that we don't particularly like of fundamental rights, forgetting that that can come back to haunt us later."

In "The Pursuit of Happiness," an upwardly mobile boomer couple are knocked sideways when their only child announces she won't go to college. Why have they worked at jobs they've hated, sent her to private schools, if not for her to go to a great college? The parents, says playwright Richard Dresser, "have turned away from the ideals of their youth and totally bought into the notion of achievement and getting ahead." He's also commenting on the "helicopter" parents who hover over their children into adulthood.

Dresser writes "serious" comedies and says he cautions actors and directors against trying to get laughs rather than just tell the story. "There's always a tendency to say, 'This is a funny play, let's make it really funny.' I always feel, 'This is a funny play, let's make it really serious.' "

"The Pursuit of Happiness" is the umbrella title for a trilogy about the American Dream among blue-collar, middle- and upper-class characters, about "someone trying to escape his or her social class," Dresser says. Last year's installment, "Augusta," was about women working as house cleaners. Next year's will be set among the swells.

Follow Spots

· The nonprofit Cultural Development Corp., which owns and operates Source Theatre, is seeking applications from arts organizations that wish to be in residence after the theater's renovation is completed next March. Applications can be downloaded at http://www.culturaldc.org and must be filed by July 20.

· Theater J will offer more points of view on the Middle East to complement (or counter) those onstage in Shepherdstown next month. Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's "Pangs of the Messiah," about a family of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, runs through July 22. A panel discussion titled "What Jews Say About Arabs and What Arabs Say About Jews" will take place after this Sunday's matinee. As part of the Capital Fringe Festival, Theater J will present a series of performances July 20-29, including David Zellnik's "Ariel Sharon Hovers Between Life and Death and Dreams of Theodore Herzl" and a reprise of David Hare's "Via Dolorosa," performed by David Bryan Jackson. Visit http://www.theaterj.org.


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