Theatre Review: My Name is Rachel Corrie

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” –  John 15:13, King James version of the Bible.

Following the Los Angeles premiere of My Name is Rachel Corrie the first of the post-play panel discussions and Q&As scheduled to follow every performance took place at Topanga Canyon’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.  In their comments renowned Oscar winning cinematographer and Medium Cool helmer Haskell Wexler and Susan Angelo, director of this one-woman show starring Samara Frame, each stated it “is not a great play.”

Then why did the Theatricum and the company’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer, both stalwarts of L.A.’s theatre scene and renowned for presenting classics by Shakespeare, Chekhov, et al, select this drama as the inaugural performance for adults in its 88-seat S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion?  Especially given the white-haired Ms. Geer’s contention that pressure was brought to bear against the theatre, and that she was threatened, for daring to present My Name is Rachel Corrie, which has a history of being suppressed?

The answer, of course, lies in the subject matter of the play which, in the tradition of “Documentary Theatre,” was largely pieced together from bits and pieces of the eponymous real life title character’s writings. Journalist/editor Katherine Viner of London’s Guardian and British actor Alan Rickman of Robin Hood, Harry Potter and Bottle Shock fame wove the tale together from Corrie’s journals, letters, emails, etc., as well as from facts known about the young Washington State woman’s life and death.

In 2003 during the second Intifada the 23-year-old activist joined the International Solidarity Movement – composed of foreigners practicing nonviolent direct action in support of Palestinian rights – at the Gaza Strip to monitor and protest Israel’s occupation.  On March 16, reportedly holding a megaphone and wearing an orange fluorescent jacket, Corrie literally boldly placed herself in harm’s way, standing between an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer and the home of a Palestinian pharmacist Corrie believed the Caterpillar was planning to raze (a tactic used by the IDF).  The heavy equipment vehicle literally bulldozed Corrie, breaking her back, killing her and creating a non-Arab martyr for the Palestinian cause – and the theatre of dissent.

The Rachel Corrie incident and story has been the subject of much dispute and contentiousness. Critics of Israeli policies contend that this was a case of coldblooded murder and a war crime, while the Russian-born bulldozer operator claimed he didn’t see Corrie.  According to a 2003 Mother Jones report by Joshua Hammer:

”[T]he Israeli army showed no remorse for its action that afternoon. Days after Corrie’s death, [Yasser] Arafat’s Fatah Party sponsored a memorial service for her in Rafah, attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as well as ordinary Palestinians.  Midway through the service, an Israeli tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas.  Peace activists chased the tank and tossed flowers, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down. After 15 minutes of cat and mouse, Israeli bulldozers and apcs [armored personnel carriers] rolled in, firing guns and percussion bombs and putting a quick end to the memorial.”

After the play’s 2005 award winning opening at London’s Royal Court Theatre the controversy surrounding Corrie’s actions and death followed Viner and Rickman’s (who, ironically, provided the voice of the Caterpillar in Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland) one-woman show. The New York Theatre Workshop postponed its 2006 U.S. premiere of the drama, which eventually opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

Apparently, like the New York Theatre Workshop, the Theatricum faced opposition to mounting My Name is Rachel Corrie from pro-Israeli forces. The fact of the matter is that – especially since 9/11 – Israel and the Arabs (in particular, the Palestinians) have not only been engaged in combat from Gaza to the West Bank to Lebanon, but they have also been locked in a communications war.  This propaganda battle aims at claiming the moral high ground in the ongoing conflict.

Pro-Zionist attempts to stifle artistic works that deviate from the official Israeli line, including My Name is Rachel Corrie, the feature Munich and the recent effort to ban a screening of the pro-Palestinian Miral at the U.N. are motivated by the same underlying anxiety.  (Munich’s co-writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, and both of the movies’ directors – Steven Spielberg and Julian Schnabel – are Jewish; the latter’s mother was once reportedly president of Brooklyn’s Hadassah chapter; and while we’re at it, Ellen Geer is part Jewish.)  In essence, this is the notion that Jews in general and Israelis in particular are victims, and not victimizers, who perpetuate human rights abuses.  However, this agitprop and censorship campaign – which smacks of book burning and is completely unworthy of the “People of the Book” – is counterproductive.

Especially in the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie. By trying to muzzle it the play’s pro-Israeli detractors merely shine more light on what is, as the drama’s own Theatricum director herself confesses, not a particularly good play.  Samara Frame’s Rachel comes across as a flakey, hippie dippie girl who one day winds up in the war torn Gaza Strip.  This could be a function of the playwriting per se; as noted, Rickman and Viner cobbled together the script from Corrie’s diaries and so on.  Likewise, although we get a sense of Corrie’s heightened politicization once she experiences Rafah, her bulldozing just seems to come from out of nowhere.  From a dramatic point of view this play has big structural challenges.

Frame is good but not great as Corrie; I’d guess that the actress is a bit too long in the tooth to fully convincingly portray a 23-year-old. I didn’t know Corrie (although wish I did) and don’t know much about this courageous young lady, but Frame’s portrayal makes her seem like a bit of a flake.  Okay, having been around the Left my enter life, a good portion of activists do come across, shall we generously say, as rather “quirky” (hey, I’m Exhibit “A”).  And maybe Corrie was ditzy, but I couldn’t help feel that this depiction somewhat trivialized someone who so bravely, selflessly sacrificed so much for other suffering people by putting her own life on the line.

(Actress/writer Saria Idana’s Homeless in Homeland, based on her experiences as a progressive Jew in Israel and the occupied territories, is a far better acted and written one-woman show than this play is.)

The illuminating film clip of fifth grade Rachel that closes the 70 or so minute one-woman show evinces more conviction and arguably intellect than the onstage adult Corrie does.  Not that the production doesn’t score its points, dramatically and philosophically.  A non-Jew, Corrie worries about being incorrectly perceived as an anti-Semite because she’s standing up for the rights of beleaguered Palestinians (who, lest we forget, are also Semites).  But to me the most telling line is when our Washington State little miss sunshine, confronted by the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, confessed that she was losing her faith in humanity.

This reminded me of what is probably the most famous quote from another famous young female diarist living in an occupied land, faced with vicious persecution, wrote: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart.”  Trapped like a rat hiding from the fascists in an Amsterdam cubbyhole, threatened with extermination, little Anne Frank was still able to express faith in the human spirit in the face of Nazism – even as the death camp ovens awaited her. Rachel, on the other hand, faced by a systematically savage Israeli occupation, is losing her hope and optimism.

And this is what the would-be censors of art critical of official Israeli policies are so anxious about. Instead of blindly supporting Israeli aggression, audiences might start asking: “Who’s wearing the jackboots now?” Have yesterday’s victims become today’s victimizers?

Just the other day the U.N. Palmer Report declared that Israeli forces used “excessive and unreasonable force” against the freedom flotilla to Gaza, wherein in 9 activists were killed in international waters by the IDF aboard the Mavi Marmara ship, which was trying to break Israel’s embargo of Gaza by delivering humanitarian aid on May 31, 2010.  Not surprisingly, publication of the report had been delayed three times, as Israel frantically struggles to maintain the moral high ground – even on the high seas.

This is why works like My Name is Rachel Corrie are so important and pose such a threat to the ultra-Zionist status quo, as they present a countervailing narrative to the official line.  One, by the way, largely believed by the rest of the world, which considers the Jewish State’s occupation of Palestine to be illegal.  Often the entire General Assembly votes against Israeli policy in the U.N. – except for the U.S. and its tiny neo-colonies in Micronesia.  And the issue of Palestinian statehood is due to come up soon before that international body which, you know, voted for statehood for Israel in 1948.

Despite its dramatic flaws, My Name is Rachel Corrie raises profound questions that must be publicly aired and discussed. So bravo to the Theatricum – which knows a thing or two about resisting the blacklisting of artists –  for having the courage to present the L.A. premiere of this play and for insisting on freedom of speech.  In keeping with this spirit a post-performance panel and Q&A with the audience will include an official of a Zionist organization.  Pro-Israeli literature is also being distributed at the theatre.  Regarding conflict in Gaza one pamphlet by a group called Stand With Us contends: “Over 50% of Palestinians killed were combatants…Meanwhile, 78% of Israelis killed were civilians.”

Note the use of percentages by this Zionist group – instead of actual numbers. While the percents may or may not be factual, I’ll bet that in terms of actual people that vis-à-vis Gaza, as well as Lebanon, for every one Israeli killed 100 or more Arabs died.  And so the propaganda war continues, as does the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli clash.

 

My Name is Rachel Corrie is being performed Sept. 8, 15, and 22 at 8:00 p.m. at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For more Rachel and repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

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