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Uncomfortable in our seats

The fate of `Rachel Corrie' prompts a question: Where will theater that takes an unpopular stand find a home?

April 16, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

VANESSA REDGRAVE describes it as the "blacklisting of a dead girl and her diaries." Harold Pinter says it's nothing less than the "suppression of dissent and truth." And Tony Kushner professes to be "baffled" by the attempts to justify what has been seen as egregious self-censorship.

The hullabaloo concerns New York Theatre Workshop's postponement of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," the play based on e-mails and letters of the 23-year-old American student who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the leveling of Palestinian homes on the Gaza Strip.

It's no surprise that the incident has provoked widespread condemnation from left-leaning critics and artists in the U.S. and abroad. But now that we're all beginning to catch our breaths (and recover our voices), the time has come to more calmly reflect on our theater's willingness to steer the public dialogue in directions that it may otherwise be reluctant to venture in.

How daringly political will we allow our stages to become? The question urges us to move beyond the self-congratulatory platitudes and catchphrases that we who love this art form all too readily dispense. It comes down to something more difficult: Can we envision (and, more to the point, finance) a theater that embraces what the great midcentury Italian critic Nicola Chiaromonte called its inherent and potentially liberating "unpopularity"?

In an age in which the value of "balance" -- meaning equal time for opposing perspectives no matter their intellectual worth -- has rendered the network news impotent, playwrights and performance artists with committed viewpoints are finding audiences who appreciate their piercing advocacy. While none are misguided enough to have large-scale commercial ambitions, they have found producers who recognize that though theater may have a peripheral status in the larger culture it nonetheless provides an influential forum that can enrich the broader conversation in areas in which it is deficient.

The passion to present "My Name is Rachel Corrie" stems in part from a frustration with the media's narrowly focused portrayal of Palestinians as suicide bombers.

For those not keeping up with one of the more heavily blogged theater stories in recent memory (and www.playgoer.blogspot.comis a good place to catch up), the crux of the controversy involves New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James Nicola's admission that he was delaying the production for fear of the way the play's critical perspective on Israeli policies might be received in the wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's severe stroke and Hamas' unexpected victory in the Palestinian elections.

Nicola's request for more time to "contextualize" the production through carefully planned post-show discussions and other such educational offerings was seen by many as uncharacteristic cowardice from a man who has created one of the most influentially adventurous theaters off-Broadway.

The Royal Court, the storied London theater company that commissioned the play, went public with its dismay at New York Theatre Workshop's handling of the matter and subsequently pulled the rights. Seattle Rep, which announced it will produce the play in March, is the only American theater to commit to a full-scale production.

Meanwhile, a retooled version of the Royal Court premiere has moved to the West End, where it has received respectful though by no means earth-shattering reviews. Matt Wolf, writing in the New York Times, said "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" "remains an impassioned eulogy that isn't quite the same thing as a play." No one, in short, seems to be making a case for the work on aesthetic grounds.

Nevertheless, the play marks a watershed moment in American political theater. It's a symbolic fight -- not even the co-creators, Alan Rickman (who's also the director) and Guardian features editor Katharine Viner, are likely to make the claim that their drama is going to have a significant effect on Middle East relations -- or for that matter find a lasting place in the repertory. But at a time when our stages are becoming increasingly political, the play is asking us to put our money where our sanctimony is.

For all our righteous claims about theater's ability to tackle taboos, flout received ideas and deepen debate, what are we to make of the news that certain hot-button issues may be too hot to present without an arsenal of mediating outreach measures to soften the blow for ticked-off donors and subscribers?

That the offending subject matter deals with the Palestinian cause seems somehow fitting. Fueling the indignation is the sense that New York Theatre Workshop's delay in producing the Rachel Corrie play is of a piece with America's pro-Israel stand -- and perceived closed-mindedness when it comes to hearing the other side of the story.

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