BWW Review: THE SIEGE Shocks the Shell of Power
A group of bearded men break out into song punctuated with undulating hips, stomping feet, and a lust for life that defies all logic. This could be Tevye's song for riches from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF or a celebration from any Shabbat that I have attended over the last 30 years. Instead it is a brief ray of light from The Freedom Theatre's recent production of Nabil Al-Raee's THE SIEGE at NYU Skirball Center. The fact that these actors are playing Palestinians who occupied Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity while facing off against the Israeli armed forces is not lost on me. I am Jewish and if the truth be told, decidedly pro-Zionist. And yet, what struck me while reviewing this production was how similar these men were to my friends and to members of my family. Though these bedraggled freedom fighters stand diametrically opposed to what I believe in, I recognized that they could have been a group of Jewish boys fighting to protect their interests. While it is not high lighted, that distinction is impossible to ignore in this production. These soldiers, pawns really, are fighting for what they believe in and as members of the minority are met with brutal force. It is one of the oldest stories in the world - David vs Goliath - and was dazzlingly brought to life by these brave actors.
Any claim that this is a work of agitprop falls hollow when confronted with the main theme: survival. When SIEGE has its actors complain about what "the Israelis are doing", the charge seems fair. Trade the Israeli reference with any other nationality and the words would still ring true as spoken by these performers. Calling them actors does not feel accurate. In truth, this engrossing production left me shell-shocked and worried as if I were under siege as well. Near the end of the performance that I attended, a man wandered down the aisle to take a seat closer to the stage. At this moment I was less annoyed by his rudeness than I was gripped with fear that he might be a violent protester or a terrorist out to punish these vibrant artists. It cannot be forgotten that their peaceful protests - artists are activists, especially when they valiantly speak their truth - are more often than not, punished. Indeed, Ghantus Wael made eye contact with this audience member and briefly stiffened before deciding to continue come what may. That nothing happened does not belie his courage.
The show begins with Alaa Abu Gharbieh as a charming tour guide showing the audience around the church where the siege occurred. Soon the past bleeds through as gunshots are heard while a group of men take refuge in the church and become unwitting captives in a game between their own government, the Israeli military, and western propaganda. The circumstances are grim, food supplies low, and the threat of death constant; the words tense, terrifying, and exhilarating come to mind. There is a beautiful moment following an early morning awakening that foreshadows coming death. When that death happens, it is no less shocking - in fact, the audience went nuts with outrage - nor is the terrible future that surely awaits these men any more obvious.
Before he is sniped, Hassan Taha unleashes a smile that is both cheerful and carefree. For a moment he is the happiest man in the world and in a sense, that is precisely why he dies; only dead men have a right to be so easygoing. The wave of horror that flooded the audience upon his death was slightly muted by the torrent of anger unleashed upon the Israelis. Though it was logical, theatrically it felt calculated, just as the earlier death of an innocent bell-ringer rang manipulative when used to damn the "bad guys". Though it is their story - and they have our sincerest sympathy - discerning who is bad is difficult when the ostensible villains are your country's allies. The production truly takes off when it is revealed that there are no good guys and that these trapped men are fighting against the entire world.
More than anything, SIEGE is an extraordinary depiction of male bonding. Against insurmountable circumstances, regardless of religion or origins, when their backs are against the wall men will band together and become something greater than family.
The war scenes are performed entirely in Arabic with English subtitles. Aside from a glitch with the subtitles, this production - wonderfully directed by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty - is nearly perfect as are the actors. In the midst of all this excellence, it is Motaz Malhees who steals the show. Playing a coward who is too smart to loathe his fear, when he stood paralyzed in the face of death he emitted a pulse of vulnerability that washed over the entire theatre. Would any of us have behaved otherwise? I doubt it.
THE SIEGE was performed by The Freedom Theatre by NYU Skirball Center on October 12th - 22nd. For more information about The Freedom Theatre, visit: thefreedomtheatre.org