OSW targets tolerance & brutality

Peace is hard to come by not only in the Middle East. It can be elusive even in Ashland.

Oregon Stage Works in 2007 announced a production of the one-woman play "My Name is Rachel Corrie," then canceled the show after an outcry from the Jewish community and others who said the play gave a one-sided, inflammatory view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The play is based on the experiences of a young American woman killed by Israeli Defense Forces as she took part in a nonviolent demonstration to obstruct an Israeli armored bulldozer that was demolishing Palestinian homes.

Now "Rachel Corrie" is coming to OSW after all. But it will run alongside several other plays presenting varying perspectives on the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism, tolerance and human brutality.

A Palestinian man who worked as a consultant to OSW on the project says he'd have preferred to see "Rachel Corrie" presented as a stand-alone play, as originally planned.

"I had great admiration for Peter (Alzado, OSW artistic director)," says Kamal Hassan, of Grants Pass, who immigrated from Lebanon, to which his parents had fled from Palestine, in 1972.

"I was disappointed he didn't stick to his guns."

Hassan works in a home-improvement center and teaches Arabic. He regularly pickets in Grants Pass to call attention to the plight of the Palestinians. He worked on two of the OSW plays, advising actors and directors on culture, customs and pronunciations.

Alzado, who is directing the play, acknowledges that the event has morphed from a play targeting Israeli policy in the occupied territories into a project that targets prejudice and violence generally.

"There were people that did not want me to produce the show," says Alzado. "I probably could have handled things better. I'm sure others would prefer I just do 'A Tiny Piece of Land' " (another play in the project).

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" is based on Corrie's diaries and e-mails as edited by playwrights Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman. Corrie, 23, was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She traveled to the Gaza town of Rafah at the time of the Second Intifada, as the Palestinians called their uprising, as a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led organization that strongly opposes Israeli military activities in the occupied territories.

Corrie was crushed by an armored Caterpillar bulldozer being used by the IDF to raze Palestinian homes the Israelis suspected of aiding enemy combatants, as per an Israeli policy in place at the time. The details of her death are in dispute. An Israeli investigation ruled it accidental. Corrie's parents and the ISM say she was struck and killed intentionally. Israeli soldiers said she was ordered several times to leave the area of the demolition.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" will be presented as one part of a series called "Things We Do" previewing at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and opening at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The project will feature two plays per night running in pairs. "Rachel Corrie" will run with "Masked," by Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor, as Part One. On alternate nights, Bertolt Brecht's classic "The Jewish Wife" will play along with "A Tiny Piece of Land," by Arizona playwrights Mel Weiser and Joni Browne-Walders, as Part Two. One $20 ticket buys admission to all four plays.

Ten actors are taking part in the project. Evalyn Hansen, of Ashland, co-directs "The Jewish Wife."

A moderated discussion will take place after the plays on each Part Two evening, with Jeff Golden hosting.

A fifth play, "Anxious State," a one-act play by Rabbi Marc Sirinsky, of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, will be read by Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Anthony Heald at 7 p.m. May 17. The play is adapted from the book "If A Place Can Make You Cry," by Daniel Gordis.

"It went off like a light bulb that the real companion piece to 'Rachel Corrie' was Gordis' book," Sirinsky says. "It's wrestling with the dreams of peace becoming more illusive, a man and his family coming to grips with a dream of peace becoming impossible."

Alzado says there was a series of miscommunications two years ago. "My mistake was that I hadn't researched the particulars of the piece."

At one tense point in "Rachel Corrie" the character excoriates Israel, listing Palestinian homes that have been bulldozed, people made into refugees, Israeli policies that restrict Palestinians' chances to earn a living.

Post-play discussions elsewhere have become heated. But Alzado says that while Corrie's sympathies were clearly with the Palestinians, the play also should be seen as a portrait of a complex personality.

"It's about this marvelous young woman who had a sympathetic response to the world," he says. "It became inflammatory because of the way she died."

Sirinsky applauds Alzado's decision to include different viewpoints along with "Rachel Corrie."

"Anyone's entitled to put on a play," he says. "But when there's an issue that's such a spark ... where Peter came from was a desire to go beyond presenting a position."

"Masked" sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lives of three Palestinian brothers, one of whom suspects that his brother is an informer. Hatsor, an Israeli, told a reporter for the New York Times that he imagined the characters as caught up in the oldest of conflicts, that between brothers.

"The Jewish Wife" is a vignette from "Fear and Misery of the Third Reich," a famed anti-Nazi work by Brecht first performed in 1938. It's about a Jewish woman leaving her German husband to save his career at a clinic in Nazi-era Germany.

"A Tiny Piece of Land" is about an Israeli family that's been moved off the Gaza Strip and into temporary housing. One character is a brother who is pro-Palestinian. The daughter in the play is being played by Shayna Marie, the same actor who plays Rachel in "My Name is Rachel Corrie."

"The Rachel role will suggest a commonality," Alzado says. "The play is sympathetic to Israel, but the pro-Palestinian brother has a voice."

Alzado says the Brecht piece fits with the newer plays because it's about deeply held prejudice, and that's what causes problems between people. He'd like "Things We Do" as a whole to be seen as an examination of the brutalizing of people.

"It's an example of what we've been doing forever," he says. "We have our sympathies, and we particularize them. What about Darfur or Bosnia?"

"Rachel Corrie" had its premiere in 2005 in London and won numerous awards. It was to have moved to the New York Theatre Workshop in March of 2006 but was postponed "indefinitely" after objections from Jewish groups. Rickman called the theater's move "censorship born of out fear."

The play has since been produced around the United States and in other countries, including a production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre that ran for two months in 2007. See www.rachelcorriefoundation.org/site/ for a portrayal of Corrie as a brave activist. For a portrayal of her as a dupe of terrorists, see rachelcorriefacts.org.

Alzado says for him the point is not to be sympathetic one way or the other.

"I think the point is suspicion and prejudice and the creation of the 'other,' the group that's bad, whoever that is, which allows us to brutalize each other," he says.

Hassan says he'd like to have seen "Rachel Corrie" have the chance to speak for itself, but he's supportive of the larger project.

"I would rather it's the other way," he says. "But if we can get halfway, we're inching forward. It's a mountain we have to climb."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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