Despite this week’s cease-fire in Gaza, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians reverberates half a world away in New York. In two plays at the New York International Fringe Festival this month, different facets of Palestinian terrorism come to the fore. In one, a one-woman show from Israel called “Samira,” presented by Anat Barzilay, the psychology of a female suicide bomber is laid bare. In the other, Meron Langsner’s “Over Here,” two young construction workers, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian, forge a fragile friendship while on a job site in Lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. Both plays are running through Aug. 24 in the East Village.
Political drama is a staple of the Fringe, and this year political themes are found in a number of the festival’s plays, including Jeffrey Sweet’s “Kunstler,” about the colorful left-wing lawyer who fought for civil rights. But it is “Samira” and “Over Here” that seem ripped from today’s headlines.
“The more that a society is religious and patriarchal, the more that a woman is in danger,” Barzilay, who is a well-known Israeli actress and comedian, told The Jewish Week in an interview from her home in Tel Aviv.
“Samira,” directed by Elinor Agam, has been performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The hour-long play takes place in an interrogation room. The title character is a 45-year-old Palestinian mother who has tried to blow up an Israeli café, and succeeded only in maiming — and possibly killing — a little girl. As the investigators interview Samira’s abusive husband, her callous mother, and a young law student with whom she had an affair, a picture emerges of a physically and emotionally battered woman who has turned to terrorism out of hopelessness, desperation and despair. All the characters other than Samira are presented in audio and video recordings, with which Barzilay “interacts” on stage. The playwright views her character as utterly disempowered. “I see her as not having a choice. She was like a sacrifice of her society to God. As long as people are fighting for God, or think that they’re fighting for God, they put all humanity in danger.”
The most powerful and destructive feeling that religion induces, Barzilay believes, is guilt. “The seeds of guilt that are put in women are especially strong. Samira was made to feel guilty all the time.” When she performed the play in Israel, she said, “people were crying for Samira but they also understood things that they didn’t understand before. Jews don’t feel sympathetic with what she did, but can still be angry at what was done to her.”
A different angle on terrorism is found in “Over Here,” based on playwright Meron Langsner’s own traumatic experience on 9/11, when he was working in the financial district. The play has been produced at a number of theater festivals, including one in Alaska. One of his aims in writing the play, Langsner told The Jewish Week, is to break down the “binaries” that govern many people’s thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. “I’m putting a human face on everyone,” he explained. “Both the Israelis and the Palestinians tend to get dehumanized in gross oversimplifications that insult everyone.”
In “Over Here,” directed by Katherine Harte-DeCoux, an Israeli named Gilad (Naren Weiss) and a Palestinian-American named Issam (Mohit Gautam), both of whom are in their 20s, meet on a construction site in the summer of 2002. The two bond through their cultural similarities and their common hatred of their foreman (Mickey Ryan), who is virulently racist. But when Issam’s cousin blows himself up near Gilad’s grandmother’s apartment on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, their friendship is ruptured, potentially beyond repair. Both roles are played by Indian-American actors who are graduate students in the theater program at Brooklyn College.
Langsner, who was born in New York to Israeli parents who had just immigrated here, calls himself “assembled in the U.S.A. with foreign parts.” He penned “Over Here” in 2003, while he was studying for a graduate degree in playwriting at Brandeis University. Even though the play was written more than a decade ago, he noted, it seems very timely with the horrific events of this summer. “With people living under fire, deflecting attacks and dying,” he said, “the play seems more important than ever, although also, in a way, more trivial compared to real life.”
Director Harte-DeCoux, who was raised Roman Catholic in Flint, Mich., sees “Over Here” as very much about post-9/11 New York; she wants the sounds of the city to be very prominent in the production. “The aural texture is very important to me,” she explained, “including the layers of sound and noise made by mechanical scraping and grinding, and subway trains running underneath.”
Tal and Omer Golan, Israeli multimedia artists who now live in New York, are designing videos filled with computer effects and animation to create a sense of the characters’ memories, nightmares and psychological associations. In one, which will be played during Issam’s opening monologue, shadows fall over the cityscape, explosions and sounds of panic fill the streets, and a waving American flag fills the screen — this last visual as the character talks about feeling despised in American society.
As the playwright told Indie Theater Now in an interview last month, him aim is to encourage the audience to “rethink how we absorb media about events, and then rethink what we tell our leaders, and then, in a better world, create a place where there is mutual respect and understanding,” as a way to “help us look at people as people and not as sound bites.”
“Samira” and “Over Here” are both performed at the Paradise Factory Theater, 64 E. Fourth St. “Samira” runs on Thursday, Aug. 14 at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 15 at 6:15 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 20 at 2 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 24 at noon. “Over Here” runs Wednesday, Aug. 13 at 8:45 p.m., Friday, Aug. 15 at 5:15 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 2 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 21 at 8:45 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 24 at 2:15 p.m. For tickets, $18, visit www.fringenyc.org.