Anas "Andy" Shallal is a 47-year-old Iraqi American peace activist, a Washington restaurateur, an artist, a lover of edgy small theaters and a member of Theater J's council. The company performs Jewish-themed plays with a progressive urban sensibility.
The son of an Arab League ambassador, Shallal came to the States with his family when he was 11. They eventually became naturalized citizens. He attended Catholic and Howard universities and has been a peacenik "since the Reagan era." He owns the Luna Grills and Mimi's American Bistro.
Writer and journalist Mimi Conway, another non-Jewish member of the Theater J council, introduced Shallal to Artistic Director Ari Roth a few years ago, "because they're both such creative and forward-thinking people. I just thought they'd like one another."
Two seasons ago, when Theater J produced "Via Dolorosa," British playwright David Hare's often uncomfortable musings about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Shallal, Roth and Conway came up with the idea of holding Peace Cafes after some performances.
"The play was so horribly bleak that we felt . . . we needed a kind of talking cure," said Roth. Shallal recalled, "I had been trying to figure out a way that brings Arabs and Jews together somehow." So he underwrote and catered the events, stocking the tables in the D.C. Jewish Community Center's upstairs lobby with olive branches and Middle Eastern snacks. The idea took hold and continued with such productions as "Born Guilty" and now "Death and the Maiden," which runs through Dec. 1.
"The very first thing we do after people sit down at the table and introduce themselves is break bread -- huge pita bread, with all the implications of family and culture and spirituality," said Conway.
Shallal observed, "These dialogues have to be about personal journeys, about personal changes. They cannot be about someone trying to impose their thinking on another person. When you come in with that goal in mind, you are bound to fail." In his experience, he said, "people that come with regularity [to Peace Cafes], and we have quite a few of those, we tend to see a progression at some level of their own personal change."
Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden," set in an unnamed South American country, is about a torture victim who confronts her torturer and wants revenge. But what the play is really about, Shallal said, is "people listening to each other. I get time and time again people telling me, 'I had no idea this is how Jewish people feel.' It's very cathartic for Arab and Jewish people to hear the other side speak on their behalf.
"How do you fix the wrongs that have been done? That's a major challenge and I think this play is going to work on that . . . the topic of reconciliation."
There'll be Peace Cafes after most Thursday evening performances, and on most Sundays at 5 p.m. pre-show panels with Arab and Jewish scholars, journalists and clerics.
Blood Feud In Synetic Theater's "Host and Guest," based on a beloved 19th-century epic poem by Vazha Pshavela, a villager and his wife take in a stranger and inadvertently spark a storm of violence. Their neighbors view the man's presence as an outrage because he belongs to an enemy religion.
Director Paata Tsikurishvili, who also portrays the host, said after Thursday's opening that he "took my chance to promote a Georgian classic." His wife, choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili (who also plays his wife in the play), said the events of 9/11 also convinced them that "it's time to do this show." The play runs through Dec. 1.
Playwright and Catholic University professor Roland Reed adapted as a theater piece Pshavela's poem about an ancient blood feud between Muslims and Christians in his homeland. "I tried to provide language, but just enough language, just the broadest sketch of the poem," Reed said, to suit Synetic's highly stylized production. It's played in front of spare, rough-hewn scaffolding, with actors using their bodies and a few props to represent everything from soldiers to trees to a deer.
A wing of the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, Synetic is an aegis under which the Tsikurishvilis can express their Georgian roots. Reed's "Host and Guest" contains poetic strains of dialogue and a soundtrack full of Georgian folk and classical music to which the couple perform the dance/pantomimes they specialize in. "I did my best to have the tragic scenes -- death -- to have beauty in it," said the director.
He deliberately blurred distinctions between the Muslim and the Christian characters. The former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the couple noted, is home to some 100 nationalities -- a stage on which ancient European and West Asian conflicts have played out for centuries.
"I'm not showing who is a winner," Paata Tsikurishvili said of "Host and Guest." "At the end, everyone is dead."
* Helen Hayes Awards executive director Linda Levy Grossman said that 125 applications came in for the 50 judges' positions to be filled under the new awards voting system, which goes into effect next year. A selection committee will announce the judges later this month.
* Gala Hispanic Theatre will rev up its $2 million capital campaign at a special event Thursday on the site of the future Tivoli Square development at Park Road and 14th Street NW. Gala will have its own theater space there, perhaps in 2004. Festivities start at 6:30 p.m. Call 202-234-7174.
* Scena Theatre will present the Berlin/Washington Theater Exchange, a two-week exploration of contemporary German theater, including workshop productions of new German plays. It begins Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and continues through Nov. 25 at the Warehouse Theatre and the Goethe Institut. Call 202-639-1770 for the Corcoran event only, 703-684-7990 for Scena.
* Quotidian Theatre Company will briefly set aside its favorite writers -- Anton Chekhov and Horton Foote -- to perform Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" Friday through Dec. 8 at the Writer's Center in Bethesda. They'll transplant the 1879 play to 1918 Galveston, Tex. Call 301-816-1023 or visit www.quotidiantheatre.org