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The Human Scale

Lawrence Wright's new multimedia piece about the Gaza Strip is extremely thought-provoking. logo
Lawrence Wright in The Human Scale
(© Joan Marcus)
In The Human Scale, which the Public Theater is presenting at 3LD, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright delves with a scholar's clinical precision into the recent, semi-distant and ancient history of the Gaza Strip and the ongoing hostilities that roar in the region. He's an even-handed observer, and his writing and performance are both thought-provoking and occasionally illuminating, if never truly theatrical.

Thankfully, though, his unimpeachable work is supported by director Oskar Eustis' handsome production that boasts some exceptional multimedia elements which elevate the work to something beyond a mere lecture.

Wright's point of departure for the piece is the 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces by Hamas, which initially demanded the release of 1,000 Palestinians prisoners for his safe return. Later, they increased their demand to 1,400 prisoners. This situation forces Wright to consider the value of a human life and, more precisely, how hostilities have reached the point that one man's freedom might be worth that of over a thousand.

These musings lead Wright to consider the events in the days and months before Shalit was taken hostage, which include overtures of peace by Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Fatah party, and the extremist reaction to his suggestion that would have allowed Israel and Palestine to "to live together, side by side." Wright then looks back further to in the late 1980s and finally biblical times. He opines that perhaps the conflict could stem from the ways in which God pitted the Israelites against the Philistines and the Caananites.

Throughout, Wright, dressed in a dark suit and tie, maintains an affable scholarly distance from the material, rarely raising his voice (which is tinged with a slight Southern twang). Even when the material becomes absurd during a sequence about a Hamas kids' program that promotes the glories or martyrdom to the pre-school set, or when he's narrating a video sequence in which a 12-year-old finds the body of her father who has just been killed by an Israeli bombing, Wright is unflappable.

There's only one point in which he attempts to re-enact an event -- in which he fainted during an interview with Khalil el-Hayya, one of the early leaders of Hamas. It's a moment that is curiously out of character with the rest of the piece, and it's one of the few missteps in Eustis' production.

Eustis' marshaling of the show's multimedia elements -- Aaron Harrow's video design plays out on both two large screens that are surrounded by several smaller ones -- is particularly deft. It's in the show's images -- both stills and movies --- that theatergoers find the weight and true meaning of the events Wright's describing coming to life, sometimes with brutal clarity.

In fact, it's a relief when Michael Friedman's original score plays during the transitions in the show, because there's a serenity to the music that calms nerves that have been jangled by what one has seen on the screens and minds. Like Wright himself, audiences will struggle to make sense of the cycle of violence that rages in the Gaza Strip, where Shalit remains a captive, while both sides determine his value on the metaphorical "human scale."

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