Review: ‘The Siege’ From Palestinian Freedom Theatre; Also, Betty Buckley’s Master Class

Ian Douglas

Jack Skirball was a Reform Jewish rabbi from Cleveland who moved to Los Angeles, where he became a real estate developer and film producer best known for his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock: Skirball was associate producer of Saboteur in 1942 and producer, a year later under his own banner, of Shadow of a Doubt. Skirball also was a philanthropist with a keen interest in cross-cultural exchange. Among his most prominent legacies are the cultural centers named for him in Brentwood and on the New York University campus in Greenwich Village.

NYU Skirball is presenting The  Siege through October 22, despite protests from, among others, Jewish supporters of NYU and the prominent Israeli former politician and ex-security chief Avi Dichter. In a published admonishment of Jay Wegman, who’s in his first year as director of the adventurous venue, Dichter wrote:

‘a hostile takeover of one of Christianity’s holiest sites must not be turned into ‘a struggle for survival and freedom,’ as it is described in the program. New York University must not serve as fertile ground for this contemptible, anti-Semitic play that portrays terrorist attackers as freedom fighters. This is a play that is appropriate for Tehran or Beirut. Not for you, in New York!’

Well, you should see The Siege. You probably won’t risk becoming a convert, either to pro-Palestinian terrorism or to pro-Israeli outrage. The Siege is muddled, as both agitprop and drama. That may be a good thing, for as a work of human interest on a canvas of exposed nerves, the play has its compelling moments. It’s an addition to the cross-talk about a complicated and unsettling subject (even finding words that don’t seem loaded is a challenge) under the long shadows of Skirball and Hitchcock, who, after all, oversaw the assembly of German Concentration Camps Factual Surveythe most horrifying documentary ever made.

In the spring of 2002, as the Second Intifada saw increased suicide bombings and mortar attacks, Israel Defense Forces commenced ground and air strikes in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as part of Operation Defensive Shield. Some 200 terrorists, many heavily armed, forced their way into the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. Inside the compound were 60 priests, monks and nuns (who remained, not as hostages, as the Israelis initially claimed, but as Rome-approved custodians of the holy site).

Rabee Hanani, Alaa Abu Gharbiehin in ‘The Siege’ Ian Douglas

The event  – call it a siege, but it’s a word that serves both sides, and perhaps neither – unfolded over 39 days. During that time, food and water ran out; some of the injured were left to crude treatment, if any, as IDF forces surrounded the site and used tactics such as ear-splitting sounds of violence to force a surrender. There were gunfire exchanges between both sides.The Palestinian Authority, maintaining contact with the men via cell phones, turned down an initial offer to accept exile for those with a history of terrorist acts. After six and a half brutal weeks in which eight Palestinians and one monk were killed, the siege ended; The 13 most wanted were exiled to Italy and Spain, 26 others were sent to Gaza and the rest were interrogated by IDF and released.

Alaa Abu Gharbieh in ‘The Siege’ Ian Douglas

The Siege is a presentation of the Freedom Theatre, founded a decade ago and based in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. It’s set entirely inside the church, where six armed men, one of them seriously injured, stand guard, argue, occasionally engage in spurts of gunfire, and strategize about what to do in the face of overwhelming odds. Occasionally they sing and, in one of the most moving passages, they recall family gatherings, palpably savoring the details of the food that was prepared for those meals. They seethe with the anger of displacement, though the inconvenient dialectics – of hatred for Israel, of the Intifada’s unrelenting attacks on Israeli innocents, of the Arab states’ indifference to Palestinians’ plight except for their own political ends – seem to have no place in this church.

Drama bears little, if any, obligation to historical balance, especially in an open society where all voices are encouraged (at least in theory). Freedom Theatre, no surprise, isn’t interested in the Israeli point of view. In a program note, the co-directors say their aim is “to tell the story behind the Western propaganda, upending the dominant narrative…” The Skirball has organized panels and discussions around the presentation, including Bearing Witness: Seeing/Hearing/Feeling Difference on October 20, led by Zohar Tirosh-Polk, a Jewish playwright whose work examines themes of home and displacement.

Presenting work remotely reflective of the Palestinian point of view has proven risky for many cultural organizations: In 1989, Public Theater founder Joseph Papp unapologetically canceled an appearance by El Hakawati of The Story of Kufur Shamma; more recently, furious protests were mounted against productions of the docu-play My Name Is Rachel Corrie and the opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Perhaps ironically, the best-known Israeli play to have made it here is an adaptation of David Grossman’s powerful and hardly jingoistic novel To the End of the LandThe Siege was mentioned last year as a possible presentation at the Public before ending up here.

The Siege opens with Issa (Alaa Abu Gharbieh) acting as our tour guide, speaking in English and relating the history of the site. It continues with the six men in the present, almost setting it up as a memory play that may be a bit blurry, though there is plenty of documentary footage of the IDF incursion, with neighborhood bombings and residents pleading for their lives. The actors – Faisal Abualhayjaa, Rabee Hanani, Motaz Malhees, Hassan Taha and Ghantus Wael – speak Arabic, with translations projected (poorly and out of synch, unfortunately) on screens  spaced too far away from the set to allow us to follow without looking away from the actors.

That may not matter, in the end, for the script, by Nabil Al-Raee, and the direction by Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, are diffuse and undifferentiated, the personalities of each character not so much ill-defined as interchangeable, possibly a result of the characters’ inability to agree on a course of action against such improbable power. The play feels seriously underpopulated given the actual numbers. The resolution – freeing the men  but cutting them off from family and home, may be seen as cruel or merciful, depending on one’s stomach for such deep-seated, mutual hatred. Remarkably, given the provenance of The Siege, I left the Skirball center feeling neither outraged nor radicalized, but only deeply dispirited. I think that’s as it should be.

A quick but necessary segue to the sublime: the incomparable Betty Buckley – who just signed on for a recurring role in the CW’s Supergirl and starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split – has just introduced Story Songs #2, a new album that mostly takes the beloved diva away from the Broadway songbook and into broader fields of soulful contemporary music. She introduced the lineup with a new show this past weekend at Joe’s Pub, and will be performing it around the country in the coming months when she isn’t filming or tending the equine and canine denizens of her Texas ranch.

I know we say this too often, critics in our unbridled enthusiasms, but this is a great collection of songs presented with ineffable sensitivity, musicianship and heart. Highlights of the set – in which she was masterfully accompanied by music director and pianist Christian Jacob, guitarist Oz Noy, upright bassist Tony Marino and drummer Dan Rieser – include two Steely Dan songs (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Don’t Take Me Alive”), a haunting rendition of Joni Mitchell’s beautiful and rare “Shades of Scarlet Conquering,” J.D. Souther’s “Prisoner In Disguise” with a heartfelt tribute to Linda Ronstadt, and a ripping cover of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky” (Buckley’s recording of Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On” is still one of my all-time favorite recordings.) So look for the album and grab a ticket if Grizabella the Glamour Cat purrs near you any time soon.

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