It may seem that there’s nothing new or insightful to say about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, a conflict that has lasted for more than 80 years. Hardly any of the dozens of plays produced over the decade have succeeded in stimulating audiences or making a powerful statement.
It seemed unlikely that the American University in Cairo’s “The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East would change that. Astonishingly, and despite its flaws, it succeeded brilliantly at a time when such heartfelt stories cease to exist in the thorny political and social structure.
“The Fever Chart is composed of three different stories set in Rafah, Tel Aviv and Iraq. Characters in the three stories are essentially indirect casualties of war who have lost loved ones and themselves in the process.
The first segment, entitled “A State of Innocence, revolves around an encounter between an Israeli soldier called Yuval (Ahmed Omar) and a Palestinian mother named Um-Hisham (Amira Gabr) set in the ruins of the Rafah Zoo, which was shattered by an Israeli raid in 2004. Um-Hisham and Yuval don’t hide their contempt for each other. Their argument heats up as Um-Hisham reveals that her daughter was killed in an Israeli attack. She recounts memories of her little girl and the harrowing images of her death. Despite his prejudices, Yuval sympathizes with the grieving mother, who cannot bring herself to accept his sympathy. The loss is too grave to forgive or justify, even at the unexpected heartbreaking end of the story when the two share a rare moment of humanity.
The second story, “The Retreating World, is a long monologue spoken by an Iraqi young man named Ali (Waleed Hammad). Ali is bird breeder who once possessed a fine collection of birds. He speaks about his passion for his birds, literature and poetry. He tells stories of his deceased grandmother and blind bookworm friend. These fond recollections give way to the nightmarish events following the economic embargo during the Gulf War that would strip Ali and his family of all their possessions.
The last part, “Between This Breath and You, tells the story of a Palestinian man named Mourid (Basel Daoud) who stalks down an Israeli nurse named Tanya (Amina Khalil). Mourid’s son was also murdered in an Israeli attack and he is convinced Tanya carries the soul of his departed son; that she’s the vehicle through which he can contact his son.
Naomi Wallace – who wrote the play – is an award-winning playwright, poet and screenwriter. Her work has been produced by major theaters around the world, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Edinburgh Theater.
“She’s one of the few American playwrights who have an experience and understanding of the [Middle East] region, Frank Bradley, director of the play told Daily News Egypt.
The strength of Wallace’s play relies on her understanding of the loss her characters have endured. There’s no grand political message behind “Fever and Wallace is not interested in presenting a moral lesson. She examines the repercussions of war from a simple and universal human level. Her sympathy with her Palestinian and Iraqi characters is pretty palpable, a fact she doesn’t deny.
“I am often accused of a pro-Palestinian bias, Wallace told Daily News Egypt in an email interview. “I answer that I am against occupation and pro-justice, and the occupation is immoral and illegal.
Nevertheless, and like all great playwrights, she refuses to judge her characters, choosing instead to explore the possibility of humanity in the most inhumane conditions. The fact that her stories are based on true events proves that Wallace’s belief in human kindness isn’t wishful thinking after all.
Wallace’s delicate, poetic text is realized with commendable precision by Bradley. The set is quite, yet expressive. Flood lights are used in the first two segments while the last one uses small, focused florescent bulbs to give the impression of a hospital.
The success of each story lies primarily on the shoulders of the actors. Amira Gabr shines in the first segment. From her drained tone of voice to her radiant and strong stage presence, Gabr infuses Um-Hisham with melancholy, piercing bitterness and a passing sense of helplessness that grips the viewers the moment she ascends the stage.
However, her remarkable performance upstages her costars. Omar, in particular, is one of the weakest links in the play. The young actor plays the stereotypical Israeli soldier with little conviction, failing to provide any other dimensions to his character.
Hammad arguably gives the most astounding performance of the play, vividly charting the gradual collapse of his character’s life with humor and poignancy. His performance is restrained. Unlike regular Egyptian theater actors, Hammad does not seek a dramatic peak to flaunt his skills. Even in the one moment he suddenly screams in Arabic, it comes off as a natural outburst of his muted frustration and deep-seated desperation.
Khalil, Kreidli and Daoud’s performances of the last act are reasonably good, but not special. The last act drags on, in comparison with the others and the story is not as compelling as it should have been.
In its entirety though, “The Fever Chart is the best theatrical production of the year so far. The largely apolitical work was tainted with a bizarre statement of four cast members prior to the beginning of the play in its premiere last Thursday.
Before the start of the play, four actors asked director Bradley to make a statement in front of the audience where they expressed their rejection of Wallace’s ideas, accusing her of attempting to equate the oppressors with the oppressed.
“I was surprised that the play could be read as suggesting reconciliation and equivalence. My work is not about equivalence and reconciliation, Wallace said. “There can be no reconciliation under occupation, nor equivalence.
“I think I was more hurt than anything else. The actors had not let on in any way that they were in conflict with the play. The four actors did not approach me once while I was working with them so there was no way to have a dialogue or energetic dispute.
Nevertheless, Wallace said she appreciates that the actors spoke their minds. “We need more of that in this world, not less.
Bradley said that the date of the play was scheduled long before the recent Gaza events. “We’ve been rehearsing since the fall and there was no way we could’ve predicted what happened, he said. “In addition, if we decide to halt every production because of similar events, we’re not going to accomplish anything really.
The four actors’ statement and the criticism Wallace was bombarded with reflects an intolerance for any work that portrays the “enemy in a non-barbaric light. The Israeli characters never appear sympathetic, and that’s one of the very few dramatic flaws of the play. Wallace doesn’t offer any kind of resolution, or “reconciliation, for her characters, which renders the actors’ statement all the more puzzling.
If indeed they are opposed to Wallace’s hidden subtext, why did they accept these roles? Professional actors reject roles if they do not agree with the message of the work. That’s always been the norm, from Olivier to Redgrave. To reject the message of the play while continuing to accept the applause and praise every night is – I’m sorry to attest – nothing short of hypocrisy.
Catch ‘The Fever Chart’tonight at 8 pm, American University in Cairo’s Falaki Main Stage Theater, 113 Kasr El Aini St., Downtown. Tel: (02) 2797 6373