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My Name Is Rachel Corrie: Off-Stage Drama

Please note: In reviewing My Name Is Rachel Corrie, I found it necessary to describe the final moments of the play in the last few paragraphs.

After all the controversy, the accusations of censorship and the petitions and letters of protest, Britain's Royal Court Theatre production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie has finally made it to New York.  Sadly, the off-stage drama far exceeds anything taking place on stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre.  Journalist Katherine Viner and actor/director Alan Rickman have assembled the solo performance piece from the diaries, emails and letters of the 23-year-old American who was killed in March of 2003 by an Israeli military bulldozer while trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home in Gaza.  Viner and Rickman may have put their hearts and souls into this work, but what they didn't put into it is dramaturgy.  The story of Rachel Corrie may be an important one.  Her words may deserve to be heard.  But this lackluster and ultimately heavy-handed and one-sided presentation is not the way to do it.

According to published reports earlier this year, James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, said his company was considering staging the play's New York premiere in March, but it was never formally announced as definite.  Explaining his reasons for postponing the production, Nicola wrote, "In researching My Name Is Rachel Corrie, we found many distorted accounts of the actual circumstances of Rachel's death that had resulted in a highly charged, vituperative, and passionate controversy. While our commitment to the play did not waver, our responsibility was not just to produce it, but to produce it in such a way as to prevent false and tangential back-and-forth arguments from interfering with Rachel's voice. We spoke to friends and colleagues in the artistic community and to religious leaders as well as to representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action."

Released statements quoted Rickman as saying, "I can only guess at the pressures of funding an independent theatre company in New York, but calling this production 'postponed' does not disguise the fact that it has been cancelled… This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences - all of us are the losers."

My own feelings about censorship, the artistic decisions of a theatre company and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are, of course, irrelevant here.  Those with strong opinions on these issues may certainly have highly emotional and passionate reactions to My Name Is Rachel Corrie, but what follows is a critique on how it stands on its own as a work of theatre.

Call it a heartfelt tribute.  Call it a sincere memorial.  Call it the writings of a dedicated youth fighting for a cause she believes in.  But My Name Is Rachel Corrie can barely be called a play.  With all due respect to the deceased, her writings, as presented in this edited ninety-minute form, reveal no more of a character than the stereotypical bright, idealistic youth with big dreams:

"Okay, I'm Rachel.  Sometimes I wear ripped blue jeans.  Sometimes I wear polyester.  Sometimes I take off all my clothes and swim naked at the beach.  I don't believe in fate but my astrological sign is Aries, the ram, and my sign on the Chinese zodiac is the sheep, and the name Rachel means sheep but I've got a fire in my belly.  It used to be such a big, loud blazing fire that I couldn't hear anybody else over it.  So I talked a lot and didn't listen too much."

As a fifth grader in Olympia, Washington, when asked to write what she wanted to be when she grew up, Rachel delivered a "five-paragraph manifesto on the million things I wanted to be, from wandering poet to first woman president."  Her lists of "Five People I Wish I'd Met Who Are Dead" and "Five People To Hang Out With In Eternity" are the kinds of things that may be fun to read on a friend's blog but hardly contribute to an evening of compelling theatre.

As a member of the International Solidarity Movement, an organization which is never mentioned by name in the script, Corrie and other Americans and Europeans acted as human shields to help protect Palestinians living in Gaza from the Israeli military; the logic being that an unarmed American in peaceful protest is a dangerous target to eliminate.Though she separates the policies of Israel as a state with the Jewish people as a whole, her descriptions of the conflict, told through correspondence, are a one-sided account of atrocities committed by one people upon another.  The piece fails dramatically because the text doesn't provide basic information about her mission and there is no attempt to analyze both sides of the situation.  It's never mentioned that the Israeli government was bulldozing down certain homes because they were suspected of hiding tunnels used to supply arms to Palestinian terrorists.  She goes as a far as writing, "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance."

Megan Dodds, who plays Rachel Corrie during evening performances (Bree Elrod plays the role during matinees), gets little support from Rickman's direction in trying to create an interesting human being from this patched together text.  She spends a lot of time standing center stage, speaking out to the audience with little vitality or vocal variety.  She also spends a good deal of time sitting upstage behind a computer, typing emails which she narrates in a monotone I-am-typing-an-email voice.

And yet there's a ten-minute stretch near the end of the evening where My Name Is Rachel Corrie miraculously begins to resemble good theatre.  In a long letter home to her mother, her language suddenly turns eloquent and mature as Corrie writes of "questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature."  She writes passionately and provocatively of the world's growing class imbalance and of the rights of those to defend their very chance for a decent survival.  If the purpose of My Name Is Rachel Corrie is to humanize a name in a news story, this monologue, sensitively performed by Dodds, is the only instance where it works.

What follows, we're told, is a recorded transcript of an eyewitness account of Corrie's death as described by someone named Tom Dale.  He tells of a brutal and intentional murder.  What we're not told is that Tom Dale was a colleague of Corrie's and that the two of them, along with others, had been spending two hours monitoring and obstructing two bulldozers.  And though Dale's description may very well have been accurate and unbiased, there is no mention made that other eyewitness accounts conflict with his report.

The final image we see, on a video monitor, is of a ten year old Rachel Corrie speaking at her fifth grade press conference on world hunger.  The moment seems a shameless attempt to send the audience out weeping.

Maybe in the hands of a better dramatist the words of Rachel Corrie could have made powerful theatre. But perhaps it would be best to simply read what she wrote, unedited, without involving the interpretations of creative artists. 

Photos of Megan Dodds by Stephen Cummiskey

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