When and how did it all go so wrong in the Middle East? Aaron Davidman provides a breathtaking litany at the opening of his solo show “Wrestling Jerusalem.”
“Golda blew it,” Davidman declares, referring to 1970s Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. “Obama’s blowing it.”
The problem is Hamas. The problem is AIPAC (the influential pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee). It all goes back to 1948 — or maybe it really all goes back to the Roman conquest of the region nearly two millennia ago. In his sweeping yet personal 90 minute performance, Davidman voices inquisitive descriptions and stories from his own journeys among Israelis and Palestinians.
He also tells wry jokes. “A rabbi walks into a bar,” he deadpans at one point.
The real punch line to “Wrestling Jerusalem” — a grim one — is that there is practically no angle for talking about the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian struggle that is not already worn almost to bits. Yet Davidman passionately throws his arms around the problem and wrestles, true to the title, convinced that somehow something constructive can be done.
This panoramic overview of one of the world’s most chronic conflicts is the opening event in this year’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival.” The program was formerly a contentious feature at Theater J, where artistic director Ari Roth was fired just over a year ago; now it’s plainly the soul of Roth’s new Mosaic Theater Company of D.C. The festival will present five shows between now and May, three of them — including “Wrestling Jerusalem” — in Mosaic’s home base, the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The play, commissioned by Roth years ago at Theater J, is now on a national tour that’s been in San Francisco and Minneapolis and is en route to New York. Under Michael John Garcés’s elegant, spare direction, Davidman holds the Atlas’s large Lang Theater stage by switching with whiplash speed or with sinewy dance moves from one point of view to its opposite. Dressed casually in matching shirt, trousers and shoes the color of bleached sand, Davidman gives us Israelis who are uncomfortable with their country’s power and Israelis who are defiant about it, Palestinians who try to cling to non-violence and Palestinians chafing with fury under the tight grip of Israeli occupation.
With distinctly different voices and attitudes, Davidman mostly observes and recounts, though he argues hotly with the play’s most obnoxious figure, an American medical student in Hebron who aggressively takes up for Hamas. The reportorial style is reminiscent of David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa,” which launched the “Voices” festival at Theater J in 2000, but with a critical difference. Hare was an English playwright seeking facts; Davidman is an American Jew with a stake in the game.
He plays with an even hand but pulls no punches. The show, performed without intermission and with few slack passages, is a potent, heartfelt survey of histories and positions, and it grows increasingly intimate and even visually poetic the further in Davidman gets. Whenever he briefly sings or dances (the choreography is by Stacey Printz), it’s with devotion; regardless of which accent or experience he’s wearing, it’s done with conviction.
“Wrestling Jerusalem” is anything but the last word on its issue; instead, it swings open the gate for the more particular festival stories to come.
Wrestling Jerusalem, written and performed by Aaron Davidman. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Set, Nephelie Andonyadis; lights, Allen Wilner; sound, Bruno Louchard. About 90 minutes. Through Jan. 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $20-$40. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.