Wrestling Jerusalem at PTC: “It’s complicated.”
When Aaron Davidman first appears on the Suzanne Roberts Theatre Stage in his solo drama Wrestling Jerusalem, he looks out over the audience and the first thing he says is,
That should be a black box warning emblazoned on the cover of the program for the production currently playing as part of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 2017-18 season.
That’s not to say Davidman’s play, which he wrote as well as stars in, is not artistic. No, its beauty as a piece of art is not in question.
But rather its meaty subject matter – the real story behind the never-ending war of nerves between Palestine and Israel – is often hard to digest in general conversation or even when reading an Op/Ed in the New York Times, never mind being presented as a 90-minute monologue at a frantically, fever-pitched pace.
And that’s where Davidman’s performance – which is mostly superb – tap dances on the edge of potentially losing an audience.
The play is brilliantly written, with Davidman portraying more than a dozen different characters – including himself – and does so pretty flawlessly with subtle changes in physicality, accent and speech patterns, obviously studied closely and mastered.
Whether American, Israeli or Palestinian, Davidman is a top-notch mimic. None of his characters go too far into the realm of being a caricature nor do they ever seem stereotypical – and that’s to his credit as a writer, researcher and performer, as well as to the centered vision of director Michael John Garces.
However, it is Davidman’s delivery in the first 45 minutes that basically insists you keep up or be left behind. For whatever reason, he decides to embark on his journey from a Hebrew song at the beginning to a Muslim prayer at the end, by taking you through an intellectual discourse of Israeli/Palestinian conflict at the speed of your heartbeat after a vigorous run through the park.
If you blink you might miss the fact that he has two distinctly different experiences on the Sproul Steps at University of California at Berkeley during protests and demonstrations some 17 years apart.
You might miss that he became passionate about the real causes of the conflict between the neighboring countries when studying the Torah in Jerusalem. You might even miss the occasional subtle humor that pops up now and again.
If Davidman would just slow down a bit during the introductory scenes and let his well-written words breathe a little, it would vastly improve his relationship to his audience.
Otherwise, audiences are left to ride a bike for the first time without the training wheels, or at the very least, without Davidman holding the back of the banana seat for them.
But once Davidman gets to the crux of his story, his characters are distinct. His argument with another American embedded in Israel really is when the play takes off.
Whereas prior to this scene, the only differentiation between characters are the subtle changes in Davidman’s well-studied dialects, he acts out this disagreement using his left arm to represent one character and his right arm to represent another, providing the audience with their first real clear distinction.
Then there’s the Israeli rabbi who decries the actions of his nation, saying that they do not represent his understanding of Judaism.
And finally, the very likeable Palestinian dishwasher who has a passion for good music, good cigarettes and good conversation – and who might be the most insightful character in the piece.
Davidman deftly changes roles through superb choreography by Stacey Printz, using quick forms of interpretive dance and physicality to have him morph from one character to the next.
The set, while bare, with the exception of a wrinkled 15×15 canvas backdrop covered in desert earth tones, works nicely. Combining Allen Willner’s brilliant lighting design, which gives a sense of time and place with each scene, that canvas doubles believably as both the Wailing Wall as well as the border-security wall between the two countries.
Nephelie Andonyadis designed the set, as well as Davidman’s costume, which is made up of subtle yet varying shades of beige and grey and the two blend together spectacularly.
Bruno Louchouarn’s original music is intoxicating and befitting the show and the sound in the theatre was excellent – although it would have been nice to have Davidman mic’ed. Maybe it was the unfortunately mostly empty theatre that swallowed up his dialogue at times, but in a play that requires rapt attention to everything being said, straining to hear is not ideal.
Philadelphia Theatre Company is definitely searching for a new identity with the recent addition of Paige Price as the Producing Artistic Director, plucking her from a successful, decade long post as Executive Director of Theatre Aspen in Colorado where she turned a financially failing theatre into a thriving operation.
Wrestling Jerusalem certainly has her fingerprints on it as a bold exploration into performance art, however it’s not for everyone – especially those who prefer a marathon over a sprint.
Wrestling Jerusalem, written and performed by Aaron Davidman. Directed by Michael John Garces. Set and costume, Nephelie Andonyadis; lighting, Allen Willner; original music and sound, Bruno Louchouarn; choreography, Stacey Printz. Approximately 90 minutes. No intermission.
Wrestling Jerusalem run through November 5 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Visit PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org or call 215-985-0420. Tickets, $25-$69.