BWW Review: Mosaic Theater Company's Passionate WRESTLING JERUSALEM

BWW Review: Mosaic Theater Company's Passionate WRESTLING JERUSALEM

As far as decent to excellent solo shows go, there are usually a couple of varieties. The most appealing to me, personally, are those occasions where a gifted actor shares a compelling and well-structured story. Even though I may not have 'lived' that story - or some variation thereof - or have an invested interest in it, the perfect mix of an engaging and interesting storyteller and equally engaging and interesting story results in a memorable theatrical experience. I find this to be a rare combination. More common are those cases where a strong actor can make me somewhat overlook story/structure-related issues or a strong story/structure might allow me to overlook any weaknesses in the acting department. These theatrical experiences are still worthy ones.

So, this brings me to Aaron Davidman's solo play WRESTLING JERUSALEM, now being presented by Ari Roth's new, but decidedly ambitious Mosaic Theater Company. The Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival - probably best associated with Theater J where Roth was the longtime artistic director until last year - is now in Mosaic's hands and it's easy to see - at least conceptually - why Roth chose this particular theatre piece to kick it off. There's a strong actor at the center, and there are some merits within the story/writing as well.

Davidman uses his recollections of a life-changing trip to Israel to make sense of and share his quest to personally understand what it means to be an American Jew against the backdrop of the ever contentious and complex Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. To that end, it's not your standard examination of war in the Middle East and all of the interconnected and disputed political, social, cultural, and economic issues at play. It's not one of your standard solo pieces about religious/cultural identity in America either. Davidman's creation is a mixture of the two - and that's what sets it apart from many others. So too does Davidman's passionate and deeply personal performance. For those reasons alone, there's something to like with this play. It's unique.

Still, at least for me, WRESTLING JERUSALEM doesn't quite achieve that rare combination of a compelling and engaging story and acting that I spoke of previously. At the beginning of the performance, Davidman comically yet astutely acknowledges the complexities of Israel's past and present and the divided opinions of what "causes/caused" the current strife. From there, he segues into sharing his upbringing as a Jew in America, how he struggles with the question of identity, and how these experiences led him to take a trip to Israel. As he regales us with stories of his adventure abroad and the opinionated people he meets along the way, the audience experiences less of a travelogue and more of his own pondering. This is expected because the whole purpose of the theatre piece is for him to connect and internalize what he sees, hears, and learns in Israel to understand who he is and how he fits into the larger, admittedly messy, picture. Thus, his aim (wisely) is not to clarify the chaotic landscape that is Israel and its ongoing conflict or to rationalize why the conflict started and rages on - as many others have done - but to place himself, as an American Jew, within that landscape and assess it from a personal level.

It's clear that Davidman has a challenge to contextualize and process his deeply personal journey in such a way that's workable for a solo theatrical play. Clearly a strong actor and storyteller, his passion and commitment to sharing his emotional journey never once falters. He also does well to remind us that the issues he's working through are messy and dynamic through word and movement. Although cringe-worthy and repetitive after the first time or two, unhindered interpretive dances to soundscapes (Bruno Louchouard) are employed in between scenes to convey the always present theme of searching amidst the chaos. (Allen Wilner's lighting and Nephelie Andonyadis setting contribute well to this endeavor.)

Yet, at least for me, as a writer, Davidman isn't quite up to meeting the challenge of presenting his material in a way that's interesting and engaging to a large, diverse audience. I found myself disengaged when he pondered (and, dare I say, sometimes babbled at length) about what it means to be Jewish and what the faith 'is' whether taking on his own voice or that of experts in the faith (rabbis etc.) that he met along his journey. While my reaction may be simply the result of my own interests/religious upbringing, I do think these portions failed to grab me for another reason. Whether intentional or not, Davidman did not always 'set' up and/or contextualize the religious voices present in his piece in the same rigorous way he did those that spoke on the conflict/life in Israel in and of itself. Simply put, I did not quite appreciate how these different 'voices' he encountered individually or collectively informed his personal spiritual journey and why I should, put simply, care. I found him to be much more successful in writing 'voices' that explain varying viewpoints on the conflict or current life in Israel. Those were more richly drawn characters and were grounded more in what he saw during his time abroad. Even if I happened to be an audience member without a moderate understanding of or interest in the sociopolitical realities in Israel as seen through Aaron's personal lens (which I was not), I would imagine those passages would still grab me because they were so detailed, and elucidated the human experience in a real and not so abstract way.

Undoubtedly, explorations of identity - whether faith-based or cultural - and conflict are messy ones and I thus admire Davidman and Director Michael John Garcés for taking on this storytelling challenge. It's not easy. Mosaic also deserves, at the very least (and probably much more), some kudos, for taking the risk to present this work - and for continuing the very much necessary Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.

Running Time: 83 minutes with no intermission.

Mosaic Theater Company's production of WRESTLING JERUSALEM plays through January 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center - 1333 H Street, Northeast in Washington, DC. For more information and tickets, consult the Mosaic Theater Company website.

Photo: Writer and performer Aaron Davidman in WRESTLING JERUSALEM at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, January 6-24, 2016. By Teddy Wolff.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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