BWW Reviews: NIGHT BLOOMING JASMINE Revisits Israeli/Palestinian Conflict in Romeo and Juliet Love Story
Israela Margalit explained in a recent interview what inspired her to write Night Blooming Jasmine, a Romeo and Juliet love story between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian student, originally produced in 2000, now revised and revived in Horsetrade Theater Group's swift, well-cast, modest production at Under St. Marks.
The Israeli-born Jewish playwright is also a concert pianist, and she had befriended a fellow pianist when both studied at a Paris conservatory. Years later, having lost touch with him, she brought up his name during an argument in Tel Aviv about whether it is possible for a Jew and an Arab to be friends. One listener was stunned: The man Margalit knew as a friend was now a prominent member of the PLO, which she describes as "one of Israel's greatest nemeses."
In her play, an Israeli soldier named David (suitably hunky and intense Ari Stachel) rescues a student named Jasmine (lovely Alissa Razzano) who has gotten caught up in a violent demonstration at her university. Given (what we're told is) her flawless Hebrew and her kerchief, David assumes Jasmine is a Jew. He falls instantly in love. If audiences might have trouble believing in this love, it is to the play's credit that this instant love elicits the same skepticism from Jasmine.
But we just met, she protests.
This is a country where the flowers bloom overnight, David replies. (One detects a rich if imprecise metaphor in Margalit's awkward-sounding title: Night Blooming Jasmine, as I discovered online, is the name of a plant that releases a sweet smell at night, can be toxic if eaten, and is spreading rapidly throughout the world; some call it a weed.)
It takes a dubiously long time before David discovers the truth about Jasmine. The plot that follows is only partly predictable.
The strength of Night Blooming Jasmine is in the depiction of the two families. Each family has its extremists; those looking to accommodate; those who are ambivalent or indifferent. The play cleverly comments on the conflict by casting both families with the same six actors. Joseph Barbarino plays both Jasmine's father Yusuf and David's father Michael; Rita Rehn is both David's mother Ruth and Jasmine's mother Surka. As Zev, Michael Twaine wants to kill all the Arabs; as Abdul, he plots to commit acts of terrorism. (Only the two actors playing the lovers get to play just one role) Although director Artem Yatsunov tries to distinguish which character each actor is portraying at any given moment by the donning of a kafiya (the Arab black-and-white scarf) or head shawl, I'll admit to getting confused at times who was who. This occasional confusion may have been part of the point.
The relationship between Jasmine and her father is in some ways the second core of the play (aided by the two actors' stand-out performances), Yusuf a modern Moslem trying to do right by his daughter by giving her an education, but worried that this exposes her to a dangerous world.
In this revised production, Margalit, who is living in New York, has eliminated the character of a naïve New York visitor, and added contemporary references to Obama and the Arab Spring. But the best change may be the theater in which the play takes place, with a minimal set. Under St. Marks Theater requires descent down a rickety staircase, and immersion in a space that feels too small and too run down, inducing the kind of claustrophobia that seems just right for a play about uneasy and unwilling neighbors.
Night Blooming Jasmine runs through September 15th at Under St. Marks.