“The opposite of war isn’t peace—it’s creation.” Playwright and composer Jonathan Larson immortalized the quote in his rock-opera masterpiece, Rent. Although he was referencing Bohemian New Yorkers, the sentiment has reached universal appeal.
Fewer companies embody the message of war over creation quite like the Freedom Theatre Company. This brave troupe was founded in 2006 in the West Bank of Palestine and serves as a cultural outlet for resistance to Israeli occupation. They adopt a notion that social change is made possible through the arts.
Judging from The Siege—a gutsy play which is now onstage at NYU’s Skirball Center, it is evident that they are earnestly attempting to fulfill this crucial mission. For the most part, they succeed.
The 90 minute nailbiter recounts the events on 2002 in which the Israeli military surrounded the town of Bethlehem in order to find Palestinian terrorists. About 200 Palestinians sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity. 60 Christian clergy folks were already inside. The standoff lasted for 39 days.
During that period, negotiations ensued, hunger mounted among those inside, and tragically, some lost their lives.
Playwright Nabil Al-Raee and Director Zoe Lafferty deserve incredible props for bringing this story to the stage. There are moments between cultures which are truly poignant and thought provoking. Yet for all the humanity at stake, it is challenging to follow the narrative. Multiple characters are portrayed by a cast of six. Often, it is hard to decipher who is who. Although the program offers a chronology of events, it would have been helpful to offer more background and context within the production itself. This could draw more clarity, given the fact that it is performed almost entirely in Arabic with English supertitles. On technical levels, The Siege surpasses many Broadway quality shows. Andy Purves lighting design and Sami Saadi’s sound engineering add precise measures of authenticity to the tense atmosphere.
In spite of the shortcomings, one must admire the audacious spirit that inspires these artists and this company. To create art from a place of destruction and despair is perhaps one of the most inspiring things I can imagine. Theater often speaks the language of understanding that ordinary human communication cannot. Nothing supports this belief more than the work produced by Freedom Theatre.
The Siege runs through Oct. 22 at NYU Skirball (566 LaGuardia Place, NYC). For tickets and information, visit: https://nyuskirball.org/events/the-siege/