“Wrestling Jerusalem” is a no-frills, virtuosic 90-minute solo performance during which its author, Aaron Davidman plays 17 different characters. His astonishing skill at metamorphosing into men, women, Israelis, Americans, Palestinians, settlers on the right, rabbis on the left, allows us to learn from each of the well-drawn personae. In the play’s preface he cites the words from “Ethics of the Fathers,” “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” But sadly and somewhat ironically, none of these posturing, polemicizing characters, with the exception of the narrator, is at all likely to learn from another.
The rigidity of entrenched positions and almost predictable diatribes is in contrast with Davidman's own fluidity as he seamlessly, and without recourse to costume or mask, self-transforms. This creates an effective, if possibly unintended, incongruity between calcified content and evolving form.
“It’s complicated!” is a rejoinder that we hear at the show’s opening and several times throughout. In the dizzying recitation of historical “what if’s” that follows, we are reminded how the impossible clash of emotional frameworks, ideological claims, concepts of justice and religious dogma have brought us to an impasse. In his many trips to Israel, Davidman, who was raised as a secular leftist Jew with an emphasis on social justice, has had to absorb a great deal of dissonance.
The production is minimal; a fabric painted to evoke the Jerusalem hills provides the backdrop, and there are just a few brief musical interludes with allusions to folkloric dance. The questions raised are critical, but they are not re-orienting or new: Is an Israeli checkpoint evocative of a concentration camp? Is this a war and therefore is it morally justified to bomb schools and bulldoze houses, a former officer of Special Forces asks. An agonized rabbi cries out, “This is not my Judaism!”; a coldblooded American-born settler lets us know that Israel is about “Jewish power and we will keep it.” A woman doctor informs us that, “We are so deep inside repeating cycles of trauma” that healing has to take precedence over the need to be right if there is to be any hope at all.
A disillusioned dope-smoking dropout at the Dead Sea is the most multi-dimensional character. His apparently detached cool gives way to reveal his underlying torment: He was up close when two of his dearest friends were blown to bits in a terrorist attack. His soul-bearing offers up human complexity beyond the stock or the cliched.
The tension between the religious teaching that God and all the world are One and the us-versus-them mentality emerges as a key theme. Davidman is the living metaphor of the polarity: He embodies all these different people while he himself is of course one human container. His cry from the heart – a prayerful repetition of the shema while lingering on the word echad (One) holds out some hope that this bloody, entrenched conflict will someday transcend its own dehumanizing past.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.”