Review: ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ at Philadelphia Theatre Company

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It’s been said that one of the problems with politics these days is that people talk but don’t listen. Opposing political sides state their positions, but too many speak just to their supporters and don’t remain open to outside ideas.

Well, Aaron Davidman listens. He’s an American Jew who has spent a lot of time in Israel, and he presents the words of the people he’s met there – without apparent judgment – in his intriguing solo show Wrestling Jerusalem.

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Ken Friedman.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Ken Friedman.

Why has the conflict dragged on for most of the last century, with no end in sight? As Davidman says in the show’s opening moments, “It’s complicated.” But one big factor is that the many sides can agree on almost nothing. As an example, Davidman cites the enormous West Bank Barrier erected by Israel. Israelis call it the “security fence,” while Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall.” Your name for it, it seems, depends on which side you’re on – literally. And when you can’t agree on something as basic as a name, conflict is bound to continue. The Israelis and Palestinians are, as Davidman says at one point, “two societies living in profound fear.”

Davidman tells the audience a bit about his own background, but he’s more concerned with relating the stories of people he’s met in his travels in Israel and the occupied territories – people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And for 90 minutes, he portrays 17 people he’s met on his journeys. He becomes an amiable Muslim out to convert strangers on the street, and a devout American rabbi who condemns the “Judaism of expulsion and land grabs.” There’s a Palestinian man tells of how his 14-year-old so was shot, and an Israeli woman tells of how a 13-year-old relative was burned alive. Davidman has compassion for the people he’s met; you’ll come to know exactly how they’ve been formed and why they’ve come to their views of the world.

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Wolfgang Wachalovsky.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Wolfgang Wachalovsky.

Davidman comes across as gruff but thoughtful, spitting out words with a sometimes-harsh, staccato speaking style. (He also moves limberly, dancing gracefully during the show’s quieter moments; Stacy Printz is the Choreographer.) But while he has no problem commanding the stage, Davidman doesn’t quite do enough to bring many of these people to life. He doesn’t make enough use of posture, facial expression and gestures to inhabit characters in the way that the finest documentary theatre artists (such as Anna Deavere Smith) do. While he’s a good mimic, many of the characters speak in similar regional accents, and with little inflection; several times I thought he was returning to a previous character when he was really moving on to a new one. A sameness settles in after a while. And under Michael John Garcés’ fast-paced direction, many of the characters appear so briefly that you barely feel you’ve gotten to know them before they’re gone.

That’s a shame, because Wrestling Jerusalem has clearly been crafted with care. The stage is dominated by a tan-and-brown canvas that calls to mind the windswept deserts of Israel, and Davidman stands before it wearing a light shirt and tan pants that match his surroundings. Even though he is not an Israeli by birth, he is clearly part of the land. (Nephelie Andonyadis did both the scenic design and costume design.) Allen Willner’s lighting adds to the atmosphere effectively – at one point Davidman appears in silhouette, the only light coming from behind the canvas. Bruno Louchouarn’s music uses tabla and plucked strings to set an exotic ambiance, and his sound design uses street sounds to establish locations quickly.

Wrestling Jerusalem doesn’t reach any conclusion about what lies ahead for the region – but that’s OK. By letting the people speak for themselves, Davidman displays a touching empathy for those affected by decades of violence and vitriol. And if they can’t have peace, maybe a show like this can bring a little understanding.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Aaron Davidman. Photo by Allen Willner.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Allen Willner.

Wrestling Jerusalem plays through November 5, 2017 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.