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My Name is Rachel Corrie

This controversial work about activist Rachel Corrie is flawed, but likely to stir up strong emotions in audiences. logo
Megan Dodds in My Name is Rachel Corrie
(© Stephen Cummiskey)
It's hard to go into My Name is Rachel Corrie without preconceptions. The solo play is comprised entirely of the writings of the 23-year-old American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home in 2003. Not only does Corrie's life and death stir up diverse political opinions about what she was doing and why she was doing it, the play itself ignited a firestorm of controversy this past spring when communications broke down between the Royal Court Theatre, which produced the world premiere in London, and the New York Theater Workshop, which was originally scheduled to present the work's American premiere.

The current commercial production at the Minetta Lane is the same one that originated at the Royal Court; it is directed by Alan Rickman, who edited the piece with London Guardian editor Katharine Viner, and stars Megan Dodds. Both the play and Dodds' performance are flawed, but the work is intermittently effective and is likely to stir up strong emotions in audiences.

The script is quite poetic, and there's a beauty to Corrie's use of language that is often both jarring and uplifting. Unfortunately, the problem with relying solely on Corrie's own words -- taken from journal entries, letters, and e-mails to friends and family -- is that it fails to provide all of the needed context to understand what Corrie was doing. The excerpts that Rickman and Viner have chosen do not include a clear outline of her agenda in Israel and Palestine, or the specific reasons for why Palestinian homes were being bulldozed. For the record, the Israeli government claims that the targeted homes may have been hiding entrances to underground tunnels utilized by Palestinian terrorists to bring arms into Israel. From what is included within the play, it's clear that Corrie believed the homes she was defending did no such thing. However, for audience members unfamiliar with the back story, this information is necessary to understand why Corrie put her life on the line.

Additionally, the disconnected narrative contains references to people who seem to mean a lot to Corrie, but whose relationships with her are never fleshed out. An exception to this is the connection established between Corrie and her parents, which is developed over a series of phone messages and e-mails. These passages form the heart of the script, as they detail the fears, anxieties, and conflicted emotions that add dimension to Corrie, and counterbalance some of the more polemical statements she makes within the play.

Dodds has a strong presence, but gets off to a rough start, pushing way too hard in the first third of the show as she attempts to capture Corrie's youthful naivete. She tends to talk at the audience rather than to them, preventing a more intimate connection. However, the sections of the play set in Israel and Palestine demonstrate the growth in Rachel as a character and Dodds convincingly portrays this shift, as well as the passion and political conviction that shine through even in Corrie's most despairing moments. Her final speech, an extended e-mail from Corrie to her mother, is beautifully realized and emotionally devastating.

Rickman, better known as an actor than a director, does a serviceable job staging the play. He incorporates moments of humor to offset some of the more didactic material, such as a scene in which Corrie leaves a phone message for her mother, giving the latter talking points for speaking to the press as if it were a grocery list. Also, several of the stage pictures he sets up are striking. He is supported by a talented design team whose contributions to the production should not be overlooked. First and foremost is Emma Laxton's excellent sound design, which makes the background noises of military conflict an ever present fact of Corrie's existence during her stay in Palestine without overwhelming Dodds as a performer. Hildegard Bechtler's set is dominated by crumbling concrete walls, and in the initial segment of the play, a blood red wall with pictures pasted onto it that represents Rachel Corrie's bedroom. Johanna Town's lighting captures shifts in mood, time, and location, adding significantly to the production's overall ambiance.

Still, while the play focuses attention on an aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, it is unlikely to sway many people's opinions. Supporters of Corrie's activism are likely to continue to deem her a martyr, while those who believe that Corrie was aiding Palestinian terrorists will either fail to attend the show or dismiss it as propaganda. Those occupying a middle position may be moved by the words of this young, idealistic woman, but they won't get all the information they need from this play in order to make an informed decision.

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