Sunday, August 2, 2009

Drowning Their Sorrows

Water plays a crucial role in our lives.
  • Water covers approximately 70.8% of the earth's surface.
  • Water accounts for 60% of the body weight of the average adult male.
  • Water nourishes us and helps our bodies maintain an electrolytic balance.
  • Water serves as a conduit to remove wastes and toxins from our bodies.
  • Water is the native environment of fish stocks, a major source of food.
  • Water cleanses us when we shower or bathe.
  • Water soothes us when it comes into contact with our skin.
  • Water is used by many religions as an integral part of rituals involving purification.
  • Water, in high flood conditions, can harm us and lay waste to our environment.
  • Water, if we are not careful, can drown us.
The ebb and flow of water can also be used to symbolize patterns of memory. While some memories need to be revisited for greater understanding, others may contain long-hidden surprises. Although some memories stay clear and fresh in a person's mind, others struggle to remain intact.

Are these memories worth saving? Maybe. Maybe not.

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When I first read about Golden Thread's production of Ecstasy: A Water Fable, I couldn't help but be intrigued. Among the company's goals are to:
  • Build an organization that consistently produces the highest quality theatre about Middle Eastern culture.
  • Establish a dynamic artistic community and an expanding audience.
  • Make the Middle East a regular part of the American theatre experience.
  • Make theatre a regular part of the Middle Eastern community’s cultural experience.
  • Create a world where our common experiences as human beings supersede our cultural and political differences.
  • Promote the rich texts and diverse performance styles of the Middle East.
  • Seek out and include the many talents of our diverse community in productions of socially conscious works with a progressive political sensibility.
  • Discover, develop, and support Middle Eastern artists.
According to the company's artistic director, Torange Yeghiazarian, "For many years, I carried the story of When the Waters Were Changed in my heart, waiting for the right time and the right person to pass it on to. I had received the story from a friend and felt it needed to be retold theatrically in a deeply visceral and layered style that could do justice to the ambiguity of the tale." According to the company's press materials:
"This ancient Sufi story recounts a time when Khidr, the teacher of Moses, warned that all water that had not been specially hoarded would disappear. It would be renewed with different water, which would drive men mad. On the appointed date, the world dried up. There was a period of waiting. And when the waters came again, only one man heeded the call, only one remembered the warning.

In Ecstasy: A Water Fable, stories are written in water, spells are cast through washing, and to drink either creates your life or rips it from you. In Ecstasy, three uniquely lost characters struggle to remember and pray to forget. A man devotes his life's work to a tragically simple task. A young woman is haunted by past images not her own. And an elder, submerged in a flood of old pictures, fights to remember a story that slowly seduces her into it."
If only the play's opening night had fulfilled its promise!

Garth Petal (Photo by: Gohar Barseghyan)

Written by Denmo Ibrahim and directed by Evren Odcikin, Ecstasy: A Water Fable was the result of a year-long developmental process during which the creative team may have become so wrapped up in exploring movement and sound with its actors that it developed blinders to the play's startling abundance of cringe-worthy moments. The result was a production that was far more interesting musically than dramatically. For that curious achievement (as well as for their superb work), I tip my hat to Vince Delgado and Roman Kosins, the two musicians who composed the show's enchanting and beautiful score.

Ibrahim's 70-minute drama is about 40 minutes too long and could easily have ended about 10 times during its second half. What might have been an attempt to depict madness through frenzied repetition (or a series of tortured visions brought to life through choral movement and sound) landed on the stage with a sorry thud. Repeated invocations of the Itsy Bitsy Spider nursery rhyme didn't help matters one bit.

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, a creative team gets so wrapped up in process that it becomes unable to stand back and question whether their emotional involvement in a piece is masking an overall failure to communicate.
  • As the Picture Lady, Cec Levinson seemed either sadly miscast or saddled with bad material. Instead of convincing the audience that she was the last person on earth to know a critical truth, her character devolved into a befuddled geriatric coping with Alzheimer's disease who, late in the play (and late in life) became prone to unexpected outbursts of profanity.
  • As the Pipeman who kept trying to place buckets under new sources of dripping water, Garth Petal spent most of his time drawing a combination of Arabic letters and hieroglyphic symbols on the theater's back wall.
  • As Mona, Nora el Samahy struggled in and out of her nightmares without being able to make much sense of what was happening.
So did the audience.

Nora el Samahy (Photo by: Gohar Barseghyan)

Analyzing a disappointing world premiere sometimes becomes a forensic process. If one takes away the music, the choral sound effects, and the supporting cast's semi-choreographed movements, the problem undermining Ecstasy: A Water Fable becomes crystal clear.

Although I have not seen any of her other plays, in this particular instance Ibrahim's writing is not merely dreadful but, at times, downright amateurish. Sitting in the audience, I found myself thinking about Priscilla Lopez's classic solo from A Chorus Line in which she describes how, despite the extreme enthusiasm of all the other people in Mr. Karp's acting class, she felt Nothing.

As fate would have it, the friend who accompanied me to the opening night of Ecstasy: A Water Fable was the same man who accompanied me to the dress rehearsal and opening night of The Making of the Representative from Planet 8 (an opera composed by Philip Glass with a libretto by Doris Lessing that received its world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera on July 8, 1988) a little more than 21 years ago. Both works were created by hugely respected creative talents. Both were huge disappointments. Can lightning strike twice in the theatre?

Yes, it can.

* * * * * * * * * *
One of the more interesting documentaries to be shown at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is Irit Shanger's hour-long film called Lake '68. Its footage of a quiet Polish lake's natural beauty is often breathtaking. Whether the lake's waters are calm and still or whipped by the wind, their overall serenity lies in marked contrast to the turbulence faced by Polish Jews who once owned properties in Drezek.

Following 1967's Arab-Israeli Six Day War, waves of antisemitism swept through Poland. Thousands of Jews were exiled and forced to leave their homeland on short notice. Many who stayed changed their family names in order to hide their Jewish identity.

For those who had survived World War II, it was like a nightmare happening all over again. While many relocated to Israel, others fled to Holland, Sweden, and the United States. Shanger's father (a former journalist with a communist newspaper) was one of the few who remained.

As many of the former residents gather to enjoy the summer where they once nervously awaited their exit permits, multiple generations of Jews discuss the politics that led to their exile, the fears they lived with, and the crushing sadness of being forced to leave their beloved Poland. One jokingly recalls how, when the police arrived, they tried to hide their Theodore Bikel recordings, which featured songs sung in Yiddish. Another sadly describes how her brother committed suicide while in prison.

As the elders sit around a table making kreplach -- or relax at the end of a dock jutting into the lake -- memories of lives that were interrupted by antisemitism are shared among old friends in a combination of Hebrew and Polish with English subtitles. The survivors recall how university faculties were decimated by the anti-Zionist purges of the late 1960s. Throughout the film one senses the strong threads that tied these people together as well as the natural beauty that comforted them in times of terror and loss. Here's the trailer:

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