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Arian Moayed and Sanaz Alexander
in Paradise
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Paradise, Glyn O'Malley's play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, came under fire in 2003 when it was presented at Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati. Apparently, the Council for American-Islamic Relations forced the theater to shut down the production for what it deemed an offensive portrayal of the Palestinian characters. The uproar says more about the reactionary paranoia of that organization than about the potential of the play itself to cause controversy; this piece about fundamentalism in the Middle East treats its subject by the book.

The play focuses on two teenage girls, an Israeli and a Palestinian, living in the West Bank. Sarah is a Jewish-American photographer whose mother Shoshana brought her to a settlement after parting ways with her father. Fatima is a young Palestinian writer whose father is suspected of being an Israeli collaborator and whose brother is a radical wanted by Mossad. After IDF soldiers kill Fatima's brother while he's planning a bombing, the lives of the girls intersect in a rather predictable way.

All of the characters are basically mouthpieces of different points of view; every five minutes or so, they spout a laundry list of terms relevant to the conflict, as if to remind us where the play is set. "Intifada" -- check. "Homeland" -- check. "Oppressors" -- check. "Judea and Samaria" -- check. "Zionist army" -- check. While one could argue that such terminology has become part of the everyday language of people living in the area, the play's dialogue rings false because of this constant repetition.

One reason that strategy fails is the ever-changing nature of the clash. For example, because Paradise is set in 2002, it doesn't cover the disengagement plan or the death of Yasser Arafat. Such omissions are all the more glaring in a piece that depicts the very people affected by these events: Israeli settlers and Palestinian members of Fatah. A difficulty in writing a realistic play about the conflict is that the material may well become dated by the time the play is produced.

Even more problematically, Paradise gives the false impression that all one needs to know about the Middle Eastern dispute are the journalistic clichés contained within the play -- for example, the ideas that no action can be judged and that most carnage in the region can be blamed on a simple cycle of violence. At one point, Sarah mentions a talk-show psychologist who says that Israelis and Palestinians are like adolescents experiencing growing pains; unfortunately, the play gives the impression that the author believes such bits of pop-psych wisdom.

The production's acting and design elements are strong enough to partly compensate for the limitations of the writing. Janine Barris has a dynamic presence as Sarah, while Carmen Roman convinces in her role of the tough but compassionate mother. Sanaz Alexander shows us the hope and sadness of Fatima, and her excitement when her character puts on American cosmetics is a beautiful moment. Arian Moayed gives a rather one-note performance as her cousin Omar, who moved to America, but Vaneik Echeverria makes the most of his unsurprising role. As director, O'Malley guides the action well, and Austin K. Sanderson's set design gives a sharp glimpse of life on streets full of Hebrew and Arabic graffiti.

Theater about subject matter this important ought to be presented, and Paradise is a well-meaning effort; any attempt to humanize people that the news usually portrays either as monsters or statistics is welcome. But it's a pity that O'Malley didn't deal with the issue more seriously. (It would be wonderful if some producer would expose mainstream theater audiences to the work of Hanoch Levin, the dovish playwright from Tel Aviv who advocated the two-state solution before it became acceptable to Israelis. His gripping and relevant play Murder, for example, uses none of the buzzwords that we associate with the conflict.)

After the performance on opening night, the ushers informed me that there would be a celebration at the West Bank Café across from the theater. Apparently, whoever arranged the party has a shrewder sense of irony than O'Malley does.

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