Basel Zaraa, an artist who fled Syria, draws on the arm of an audience member for “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me.” (Nada Zgank)
Theater critic

If you’re not completely drawn into “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me,” you’re doing it wrong.

Allow me to amplify: This is the extremely rare occasion on which a production draws on you. No, really, right on you. And it does so with both a touching illustrative delicacy and an appeal to the conscience that is impossible to turn away from.

That’s partly because your left arm is held captive for the 10-minute duration of “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me,” a performance piece about the ordeal of seeking refuge by Tania El Khoury that’s being presented for the next 2½ weeks in the lobby of Woolly Mammoth Theatre. For this hypnotic, one-audience-member-at-a-time experience, you pass through the door of a white-walled booth and slip into a white lab coat before putting on a pair of headphones.

The voice of performer Basel Zaraa, a Palestinian artist who fled Syria and resettled in Britain, comes over the headset, instructing you to roll up your sleeve and place your arm through the hole. Inscribed on the wall to your right are the words of the song of escape that Zaraa will soon sing to you in Arabic: “In the boats, all the faces are stressed/ Holding their breaths/ Bracing their wounds,” reads the English translation. “They’ve heard so much gunfire/ They no longer feel anything.”


Participants in Woolly Mammoth's “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me” leave with an image etched from haunting memories. (Tania El Khoury)

The tactile aspect of “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me” has to do with the gentle strokes of a writing implement, gliding across the underside of your hand, wrist and forearm. It’s an act of blind faith you’re engaging in with a stranger: extending your arm into unknown space. That void is a metaphor, it seems, for the control a refu­gee must relinquish. Here, though, the consoling hand of an artist is there to hold you fast. It’s a small gesture that feels bigger and bigger as you give yourself over to the soothing sensation of being a human canvas for a story that requires an extension, too, of your own compassion.

The ink Zaraa commits to this endeavor forms a beautiful (and if you want, immediately washable) memento of this simple exchange, brought to you by Woolly and Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and its Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. I experienced “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me” at its last stop — off-Broadway’s Public Theater — and though I imagined beforehand that the encounter might feel like a stunt, I left with a feeling of having established a firmer link to a crisis that is overwhelming to contemplate.

You’ll be compelled, I think, to reflect on your own urge to connect, after Zaraa releases your arm back to you and you consider the picture he’s etched from haunted memory, just for you.

As Far as My Fingertips Take Me, by Tania El Khoury. Through Feb. 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. For $15 lottery tickets: woollymammoth.net or 202-393-3939.