nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
November 17, 2007
The challenge of political theatre is battling the sense of stating the obvious, and finding ways to make old politics new again. Theatregoers who are not politically inclined are unlikely to be there for the show to "educate" them, and the audience who turns out is already well versed in political rhetoric and anticipates a particular point of view. Even if a play aims to preach to the choir, it has to be innovative. If it actually strives to open eyes to new insights, it is in for an intellectual and emotional tug-of-war with the same crowd it wishes to please.
Writer-performer Iris Bahr seems to have found the key to opening her viewers' eyes. In her solo play Dai, which in Hebrew means "enough", she gives a fascinatingly layered portrayal of a group of people who patronize a popular Tel Aviv café on a day a suicide bomber blows it up. It is political theatre that offers something new to even the most jaded political junkies.
The show starts with a Syrian-British reporter soliciting interviews from patrons from all walks of life: a Russian prostitute, a gay German man, a young American in the Israeli army, an elderly former general, a Latina actress, an Israeli expatriate living in Manhattan, a West Bank settler from Queens, a Palestinian professor, an American Christian from the South, and a rave girl pushing "party for peace." They might be more colorful and diverse than the random people you actually find in any given corner of Israeli society, and are mostly outsiders merely visiting—reminiscent of taking samples from New York for the nation. But this is drama, not statistical analysis. They represent the myriad views Bahr has no doubt come across in her life in Israel since she moved from the Bronx at the tender age of 12.
Her own experience affords plenty of opportunity to meet a variety of people: she grew up in a secular household but went to an Orthodox school; she served her two-year mandatory military duty for Israeli intelligence in the army; she traveled through Asia and published a book about it; then she graduated from Brown University with degrees in neuropsychology and religious studies; before long she appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm and started a stand-up career. You get a sense that those characters you meet on the stage may not be entirely fictional.
The unrelenting force hewn from that realism carries us effortlessly to this troubled land. Bahr's writing is crisp and smart, ranging from the settler's acid assertion that Palestinians came to this land only after Israelis did, to the Evangelical Christian's glib explanation that money and protection for this land is essential before the Armageddon, when the people here "will change their way" or face total annihilation. Bahr does not mince words, and certain remarks will undoubtedly smack of propaganda to some, but just as sure is the fact that those views do exist, and need to be contended with by those who disagree. Bahr also has a peerless ear for the humor inherent in life's hardships, even in war, and it does wonders to bring these characters to full life, offering sympathy to offset the angst. However, the monologues are often delivered at such a high speed and with various exaggerated accents that the opportunity to savor the words sometimes gets lost.
As we are pulled into these people's lives, they seem as hard and unforgiving as the bomb that cuts them short. Bahr has chosen the moment at which the destruction occurs with an exacting precision, hence rendering a truly visceral effect. In the midst of blazing sirens, screams and cries, we are hit with the realization that, with such propulsive energies trapped in a short frame of uncertainty and abnormality, it's a wonder that life goes on after each blast, day in and day out, on either side.
What stands out most forcefully in this piece is Bahr's fierce commitment to each of those voices. Complete with unique mannerisms and quirks, each character is inviting, which makes his or her disappearance that much harder to take. Marc Janowitz's lighting design and Frank Gaeta's sound design (with David Roy as associate sound designer) are crucial in framing all the drama within this little café.
In the end, the show is as urgent, as risky and as controversial as its topic: what people who live or travel in Israel think about the Middle East conflict and why. Is it fair and balanced? That is not the question for political theatre. The question is: Do you come away not only knowing more, but wanting to know even more? The answer is yes.