The Fever Chart: Three Versions of the Middle East
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
May 6, 2008
Does political theatre serve a purpose at this moment in time? Are we too overwhelmed by information, too frustrated by long-term policy trends, too plugged into the internet yet too removed from the reality of anything beyond our own lives for theatre to have a political impact? The Middle East situation—specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/conundrum—is so fraught, so complex, and so beyond the reach of my understanding that I can barely get a grasp on it. So I hoped that Naomi Wallace's The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East might help me see things in a new way, understand the situation differently, maybe even awaken a new feeling about what's happening in this political hotbed. Sadly, I was disappointed by how little I felt in response, and I wondered whether, at the end of the day, this well-intentioned form of theatre has any real impact.
In the first two short plays of this triptych, Wallace explores individual encounters between Israelis and Palestinians. The first piece is set in the ruin of a Gaza strip zoo, where a young Israeli solider (Arian Moayed), a Palestinian mother (Lameece Issaq), and a driven Israeli architect (Waleed F. Zuaiter) co-exist in a friendly kind of limbo. A final revelation towards the conclusion explains what brings these individuals together; until then they seem to float around, talking just past each other, civil but detached. Next, in a medical clinic in walled-up West Jerusalem, a Palestinian gentleman (Zuaiter) requests five minutes of time from a young Israeli nurse (Natalie Gold). Despite her reluctance, she ends up talking to him for almost 30 minutes before he reveals his true purpose. Both plays are built on a similar template —both involve children lost to the war, grieving parents, a secret which puts strangers from enemy sides in cosmic bonds. The last piece shifts the focus to Baghdad after the first Gulf War, in a monologue by an educated Iraqi man (played with a welcome warmth by Omar Metwally) that explores his devotion to birds, a deep, lost friendship, and the devastation caused by the UN trade embargo of the 1990s.
While all of these plays are based on real events, this is neither "living newspaper" theatre nor agitprop. It's also not compelling drama. Wallace sets political ideas in wafting, sometimes ethereal poetry. Her language plays with surprising, often strong imagery—pigeons, mops, human breath—to link the political to the personal. It's eloquent literary writing but it rarely comes to life in this production. The characters' wants are more esoteric than visceral; the stakes are karmic. It all feels "important" from a historic/cosmic viewpoint, but in terms of what's actually happening in the theatre, it gets pretty dull.
Jo Bonney's direction, spare and composed, follows the cool tone of the text. Her approach with the actors focuses on playing the language and keeping emotions at a distance, and the performances—re-enforced largely to the writing—hold the audience at a distance rather than pulling us into their world. The production is part of the Public's developmental Lab series, and design contributions by Rachel Hauck (set), Ilona Somogyi (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lighting), and Christian Frederickson (sound) are simple but efficient.
I wish Fever Chart could have raised my temperature about the politics of the Middle East. Sorry to report that, if anything, the artistic choices made the issues feel farther away.