Stage Corner: The Siege

Mustafa-e1505909303905-660x330The Siege is a theatrical retelling of  2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, during the height of the second intifada.  The Siege was developed by  The Freedom Theatre, and here is a description from their website:

April 2002. Spring in Bethlehem. A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the center of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew. Inside the Church of Nativity the besieged are hungry and weakening. The smell of unwashed bodies and broken lavatories is mixed with the stench from the suppurating wounds of the injured. Two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.

Palestine is rather personal to me.  I am not Palestinian, but I am Egyptian, which means that, like many Arab children, I grew up immersed in the struggle through friends, family, and the media.  So, walking in, I was prepared for it to be gutting.  It did not disappoint.

The staging is simple but eerily effective: in the center of the stage is a single free-standing set wall, with a doorway attached to it.  Fawanees (lanterns) dangle from the ceiling, a ratty carpet coats the floor, and heavenly light is cast upon the church, ensconcing it in otherworldly smoke.  It’s not an immersive show, but you do feel immersed.  The show begins with a man playing a tour guide, breaking the fourth wall as he takes the audience on a tour through the church.  (This is in English, though the rest of the show is in Arabic with supertitles, which makes everything more hyper-focused.)  Then, lightning fast, the scene switches to the siege, and cacophonous gunshots and explosions can be heard all around as six young men, one bleeding profusely, rush into the church for safety.

The cast is made up entirely of six men, soldiers who have gotten trapped in the church as the Israeli army surrounds them.  Though the show is quite short and fast-paced, each of these characters manages to establish some facet of their personality through incisive dialogue.  Some of these men are wholly committed to the cause, some are willing to die for it, some are more hesitant, some are willing to eat cats to survive, some would rather die than eat cats to survive.  Though they are shown grappling with tanks and gunfire, they also sing, make jokes, talk about their favorite foods and their family members and fiances.

They are also not afraid to get political (or I should say, the show is not afraid to get political), and I can see why pro-Israel factions were angered by this (The Public Theater cancelled this show twice).  The cast discusses the Israeli/Western propaganda machine that turns reality upside down, turning the oppressed Palestinians into the oppressors, while ignoring Israel’s occupation and continuing war crimes.  They talk about the pointlessness of negotiations with an international community that has already deemed them nothing more than terrorists while all they want is simply to survive and live in their land, which stolen from them by a violent invading regime.

In the after-show panel, the director said that her goal was to humanize men who had been explicitly demonized in the media for doing nothing more than defending their own land.  She also stressed the importance of critical thinking and independent research.  Her panel members impressed upon us the need to look beyond American media sources.  Honestly, for me, it was just incredible to finally be in a space where I didn’t feel like I was being gaslighted about Israel’s crimes.  Once, in a graduate classroom, I had to listen to a classmate deem harsh criticism of Israel as “hate speech” and have an entire class of graduate students nod in agreement.  It was…cathartic to finally see the reality of Israel and Palestine reflected in an American space.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the show, one of the most beautiful and most humanizing, was when two of the characters are praying.  The Palestinian Freedom Fighters are made up of both Muslims and Christians, and in one scene the audience is witness to one of the Muslim men kneeling on his prayer rug while the Christian man is praying with his priest.  They are right beside one another: it is a heart-warming juxtaposition.  Often, in the media’s haste to demonize Muslims, the occupation of Palestine is characterized as a “Muslims vs Jews” struggle, while Palestinian Christians are sidelined.  It is helpful to remember that there are many Palestinian Christians engaged in this struggle, and that the fighting has little do with religion.

The after-show panel ended by discussing the intersection of politics and performance.  Art like this isn’t just there to give people hope, but also to change hearts and minds, to give people (in this case, Americans) a different reality outside their propaganda bubble.  I certainly hope this show manages to change some minds, and that it continues to tour even in the face of opposition.


Stage Corner: Cats


Cats is known to be a rather divisive musical.  Some folks hate it, some folks love it.  When I won the lottery and did some research on it, I figured, well, there has to be something appealing about it considering how long it’s been running for! It’s so popular! Can it really be so successful on Broadway and yet have little to no appeal? As it turns out, the answer to that question is yes.

I’ll start with the little I appreciated.  The stage is quite cool, decorated in a really busy, cacophonous way, and the backdrop of the full moon is gorgeous.

That’s it.  And now the bad.

First of all, and this is probably more of a personal hangup, but I found it incredibly creepy watching humans crawling around and pretending to be cats. It felt like I was watching a demonic rave in hell.  Second, their costumes…I feel like there had to be a…less embarrassing and cringey way to convey that these folks are playing cats.

Third, I couldn’t follow anything that was happening. Was there anything happening? is there a plot? Who knows, not me.  I also didn’t like the music.

And finally: in general, when it comes to media I consume, I can forgive a lot of flaws, but one thing I can’t forgive is boredom.  If something bores me, that’s it, I’m done.  And Cats bored the hell out of me.  I had to work to convince myself not to leave at intermission.  I kept getting distracted, checking the Playbook to see how many songs were left until I could just get the hell out of there.

Cats could have been the silliest, most pointless, wackiest thing ever (and it was), and I wouldn’t have minded if it had kept me interested with good music or good storytelling. Since it had neither, I was basically suffering through a bunch of grown-ass adults dressed as cats running around singing random lyrics.


Stage Corner: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812


From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.  The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812.  Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.

All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights.  One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha.  Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family.  Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.

The performance is absolutely wild.  Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave.  The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel.  This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers.  There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!

The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic.  They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant.  The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene.  I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity.  Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.

Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness.  Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected.  He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing.  The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre.  Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.

Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown.  The similarities are glaring.  Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging.  And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles.  I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects.  I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.

It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances.  The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair.  It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs.  It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.