Reflecting, and refracting, world events of universal concern has always been one of the theater's most significant missions. Some playwrights use the conflicts and upheavals of history to propound political agendas; others harness the emotional power of contemporary experience to suggest ways society could improve.
Roy Barber, a local writer and musician who has an impressive record of accomplishment in cabaret and socially conscious musical theater, falls into the latter category. His new work at the Source Theatre, a musical called "Children With Stones," subtitled "Voices From Israel, the West Bank and Gaza," is nothing if not ambitious, tackling as it does the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Barber's intent, apparently, is to engage our empathy by showing us the people behind the headlines, and thus to recognize the validity of each side's arguments and urge a peaceful resolution of what seems to be an unresolvable problem. To this end, the author spent several weeks in Jerusalem interviewing Israeli settlers, intellectuals, "rejectionists," Palestinian refugees, artists and peace workers. He used these conversations to fashion this musical, and the details give the work a potent ring of authenticity.
For all its worthiness, however, "Children With Stones" falls short of the emotional wallop it would like to pack. Although the finale, "The Next Step," offers the prospect of some conciliation forged out of mutual pain, it is hard to buy into the idea that this will happen. The uneven abilities of the cast -- some of them fine and others unable to meet the needs of the material -- lessen the impact as well.
The first song, "When I Knew," introduces the characters by having each recall the time he or she recognized that the war of hatred between Arabs and Jews was personal. One woman remembers the Arab boy who lived next door who killed a Jew; another woman sings about being harassed by Israeli soldiers. The stage is divided between the Palestinians and the Jews, with one or two go-betweens representing the tiny "peacenik" movement.
One of these is an American teacher, Beth (Bari Biern), who is married to an Israeli soldier. She has made friends in a Palestinian refugee camp, and tries to get the parents of her students to "Let's Go See the Mosque," as she sings in another song, to further understanding. Her mother-in-law (Barbara Rappaport) has suffered the death of a daughter at the hands of Arabs, and is a refugee from the Nazis. She will not be moved from her West Bank home, and she and her husband feel the Jews have been kicked around enough. "Why must we always die for others?" asks the father (Carlos Juan Gonzalez). They are in conflict with Beth, who feels the Israelis have not treated the Palestinians fairly.
In the refugee camp, a young woman (Lisette LeCompte), also a teacher, sings of the bakery she and other refugee women have started to find financial independence, and of the constant harassment they receive from the Israelis trying to shut them down. She calls them "Dangerous Cookies" (although for some reason they are actually bagels).
Her husband, Tasir (Scott Sedar), also a poet and teacher, has just been released from prison, and he and his more militant friend Muhammed, a Palestine Liberation Front operative (George Fulginiti-Shakar), sing about the intifada and their ways of dealing with rage.
Other characters include the Israeli mother of a son killed in Lebanon (Karen Eriksen) who has become a peace activist, and a sad transvestite (Wayne Henson), who wanders in and out prattling sweetly about Queen Noor of Jordan, with whom he is evidently insanely obsessed. There are also two Israeli soldiers, including Beth's husband, Isaac (Scott Morgan). After a boy in the Palestinian refugee camp is killed by Israeli soldiers, and he takes the boy to the hospital, Isaac becomes a "refusenik," and is jailed for failing to report for duty.
Structurally, the work tells its stories through songs, most of them dark, melancholy melodies in the Jacques Brel or Elizabeth Swados tradition. It is, however, difficult to keep the many characters and their myriad alliances and tragedies straight and as a result some of the songs are hard to follow. The basic message of each song is clear; it's just the subtleties that are hard to catch.
If passion were all that was needed to perform this show, the cast would be well abreast of its demands. Biern, Sedar, LeCompte and Gonzalez sing powerfully and communicate the emotional intensity of their roles. The others are also strong, although Rappaport and her Arab counterpart, Louise Reynolds, are too tentative to keep our attention. With a little more time, Eriksen will have a powerful scene with her dramatic song "We Stand Outside."
Barber's creation was honed through readings and workshop productions at the Source during the past year, and the play is certainly a serious and provocative effort at melding music and conflict. Its failing may be that the conflict it confronts is so huge, it is hard to break it down into the digestible pieces that can be contained on a stage. Songs are vignettes, and developing a strong spine on which to connect them is a challenge that is as yet unmet.
Children With Stones, by Roy Barber. Directed by Janet Wallis; set by Elizabeth Jenkins; lighting by David Zemmels; costumes by Wallis; piano, Barber; percussion and flutes, Stream Tomas Ohrstrom. With Carlos Juan Gonzalez, Barbara Rappaport, Scott Morgan, Bari Biern, Richard Rohan, Sheldon S. Gilbert, Karen Eriksen, Louise Reynolds, Lisette LeCompte, Scott Sedar, R. Daniel Luna, George Fulginiti-Shakar, Wayne Henson and Jim Cantrell. At the Source Theatre through Dec. 15.