The Playgoer: "Rachel Corrie" Buffered in Beantown

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Rachel Corrie" Buffered in Beantown

Yes, sorry, "Rachel Corrie" again.

But, hey, it's not me putting it in the papers. The play has finally come to Boston. (Recent prominent stagings include smaller companies in Denver and Montreal--where, perhaps to counter the blond, blue-eyed American image of Rachel, she was played by an Asian-Canadian actress.)

No controversy, actually. But the Boston Globe's preview reports that the New Repertory Theatre (of suburban Newton) has indeed gone ahead with its plans to pair--nay, trio or quadruple--the play with other "balancing" events.

[New Rep] had originally planned to pair "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" with the one-act "To Pay the Price," about the late Israeli Army hero Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu. But after the Netanyahu family heard of the plans, it asked that "To Pay the Price" be pulled from the lineup, deeming the two plays incompatible.

Forging ahead, New Rep replaced "Price" with the solo show "Pieces," written and performed by an Israeli-American, Zohar Tirosh, about her experience serving in the Israeli military in the mid-1990s, when peace seemed like a real possibility. The company is also surrounding the two works - staged in its 90-seat black-box space - with related panel discussions, talkbacks, readings, and films, including the Oscar-nominated documentary "Promises."

The New Rep's producing artistic director, Rick Lombardo, says that this mini-festival on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not part of an effort to deflect criticism of "Rachel Corrie," but is instead the result of nine months of planning and dialogue that he and his staff engaged in with various communities, from the Arab Anti-Defamation League to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"Everybody wants to fixate on one play. But for us, it's never been about one play," he says. "Our goal was to have Rachel's voice be one of two. But the more we've explored the topic, the more our festival has grown to include a diversity of voices. We want to explore how a historical and cultural event like the Israeli-Palestinian situation spurs artists to create and spurs community dialogue."

Not to rehash old arguments here, but...

Isn't it funny that this approach has not been advocated for plays on any other issue?

Lombardo's rationale could be deployed to justify buffering any number of controversial--or once-controversial--plays. To take him at his word, you'd assume his theatre would also stage, say, Inherit the Wind in conjunction with a pro-Creationist play. Might some communities still into "traditional" male-female relationships be right in asking that even A Doll House to share a bill with, I don't know, some Victorian family melodrama like East Lynne?

Okay, strawmen, I know. But think of some of the most praised current or very recent productions seen in New York recently that take a side in similarly controversial issues. St. Ann's Warehouse felt no compunction to present the Scottish National Theatre's Blackwatch with any rebuttal statement from John McCain on "Why the Surge is Working." Last summer's vicious Hillary Agonistes did not compel the NY Fringe Fest to offer anti-Obama fare.

To say nothing of the difference of opinion some theatre artists still find in local communities when they dare to put on Angels in America or Laramie Project. Forget about the violent homophobes. How are we to appease the fine upstanding peaceful citizens who simply object on relgious grounds to all tolerance (i.e. depiction without explicit condemnation) of homosexuality.

And think of other artforms. Like film. The hard-hitting Romanian Oscar contender 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is about as controversial subject as there is in American culture: abortion. And it's unapologetic about why it must be legal. Are arthouse cinemas and distributors pressured to offer "double features" with some more pro-life film like...uh, Juno?

In short, "context" is fine. But context should never be cover.

Besides--thinking about this again reminds me of what pretty much the only exciting thing was about watching My Name is Rachel Corrie Off-Broadway a year and a half ago: the experience of being in an audience that has to deal with controversial, unpopular statements spoken from the stage, unopposed.

There's a long history of subversive sentiments and statements sneaking themselves into drama. But they only survive intact when the "evildoers" are punished or reformed, or when some raisonneur is there to rebut them right on the spot. Kate spends much of Taming of the Shrew venting the frustrations of women everywhere, before Shakespeare makes the play palatable by forcing her to recant at the end. (Ditto Shylock.) This is also why villains can be so much fun--they're often right! They're just saying the things no one else is allowed to say.

So I get the feeling the only "acceptable" kind of play about the Middle East now would be one where, sure, someone gave some speech in defense of the Palestinians--only to be answered and/or shot down by some more "reasonable" character. (Hence Mike Leighs' Two Thousand Years, while addressing these subjects, has met with no such controversy.)

So by running for cover behind as many "diverse views" as possible, we deprive the theatre of that special frisson that can only come from confronting the unpleasant. Even if it is "wrong." Think of that ending from Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon, for instance, where the heroine leaves us with an atrocious monologue justifying Kissingerian ethics on warcrimes, assassination, and such. Now imagine someone coming out after the show having to explain to you, "Now boys and girls, that was just a play. We don't really think that."

But look: we don't see this approach taken with plays of any other subject, do we? (Or so far, of any other plays!) So obviously we don't need to worry about this becoming a trend, right? Or do we...


Playgoer said...

I should point out the Globe article reports on the debate as well, including seeking out some critical comments from longtime supporter of the play, Christopher Shinn, as well as comments from Corrie's parents, and people from ART who reportedly passed on the play.

Nick said...

"Now boys and girls, that was just a play. We don't really think that."


Don't you think Wally Shawn did essentially that when he wrote both a prologue and an epilogue to the play explaining why/how the character of Aunt Dan need not be expressing the beliefs of the playwright?

Playgoer said...


You mean, in the published version? I've never read the play, actually, only seen it.

Yeah, I suppose that's a shame if Shawn feels the need to have to put a "disclaimer" on it. If that's what the prologue & epilogue are.

But, hey, that's for the printed version. You can either read it or not. I'm talking about live, on stage. A different effect, I think.

Nick said...


Yeah, I was thinking how in the published text Wally Shawn wrote an essay as addendum. That’s what I referred to as epilogue. The prologue I am referring to this amazing incident:
"At the original production of this play at The Public in 1986, there was reportedly such a vocal and disturbed response from some in the audience that Shawn wrote an essay "Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Night at the Theater," and handed it out to the audience."

Ian Thal said...

in the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie the added issue that there is quite a bit of dispute over the circumstances of her death, both in terms of cause of death and in what precisely she was doing when she died.

The fact is that Corrie's "supporters" immediately seized upon a particular narrative account of her death for the purpose of propaganda (this play being just one such instance) despite many contradictions based on eye-witness testimony, video, photographic evidence and forensic reports. This makes it a different animal entirely from many of the other plays you mention.