01 August 2017

'While I Was Waiting' (2017 Lincoln Center Festival)

The theme of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, which ran from 10 to 30 July 2017, was  “transcending borders,” according to Nigel Redden, the festival director.  I chose two of the festival offerings that reflect that idea strongly: While I Was Waiting, the first Syrian play in the LCF in its 22-season history, and To the End of the Land, an Israeli drama.  I’ve often said that one of the absolute best things about living in New York City is that the arts of the entre works eventually make it here.  While many world capitals get touring shows and exhibits from abroad, no city that I can think of gets them in the quantity and frequency from as many foreign theaters, concert halls, and studios.  It’s almost an even bet that if it tours, it’ll get here sooner or later.  On the theater scene, with the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and the summer glut that’s the LCF, we get several score of plays from dozens of countries, represented by both large institutional theaters and small companies presenting both new works and classics.  (There’s nothing quite like seeing a national classic performed by actors from that country, like a Chekhov from a Russian company or a Molière by a French troupe.)  Add to these the individual tours of productions from overseas, and a year will bring close to a hundred theater performances of every description and conceivable form of stage art from which to choose.  And that’s not even counting the musical, dance, and performance presentations from around the globe. 

That said, I was very curious about While I Was Waiting because I haven’t seen very much Arabic theater.  (One past experience was Speaker’s Progress by Sulayman Al-Bassam, a Kuwaiti playwright  and director, in a 2011 BAM Next Wave Festival.  See my report, posted on 27 October 2011.)  In addition, I was curious how a play from one of the banned countries would fare here now that President Trump’s Muslim travel ban has taken limited effect.  (I imagine most of the visas for While I Was Waiting were secured before the Supreme Court’s partial lifting in June of the injunction barring the ban’s enforcement.  Nonetheless, according to an article by theater reporter David Cote published by Lincoln Center, the process to secure visas for members of the Waiting company was labyrinthine and often fraught.)  Aside from its content, While I Was Waiting is interesting from another perspective as well.  Both the writer, Mohammad Al Attar, and the director, Omar Abusaada, have formal training from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus.  I know there are Arabic plays all over the Islamic world—Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the 1988 Nobel laureate in literature, was an Egyptian playwright, as well as a novelist, poet, and screenwriter—but the only ones I’ve ever heard of or seen have been modern plays.  (My friend Helen Kaye, who covers culture for the Jerusalem Post—and has contributed often to Rick On Theater—has written about some Arabic plays in Israel.)  I didn’t know whether the Arab world has a historical theater tradition.  Africa doesn’t; neither do Native Americans.  Both those cultures are still trying to adapt Western theater practices for their indigenous narrative forms and other performance traditions (music, dance, and masking, among others).  I wondered if Arab cultures are in the same position.

It turns out, they are.  What we see as “theater,” meaning stage plays performed by actors, in the Middle East is a Western import that dates no farther back than the late 19th or early 20th century in most countries of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.  Censorship and religious and cultural taboos (such as women appearing on stage and religious and historical icons impersonated by actors) had been one impediment to the development of an indigenous theater; most early regional theater exposure came from traveling European troupes.  Indigenous companies began imitating and adapting the stage fare introduced by the Western companies.  Local playwrights began writing their own versions of Shakespeare and Molière, incorporating their own nations’ forms of performance such as storytelling and shadow puppetry.  My minimal experience with Arab plays suggests to me that theater artists in this region are still experimenting with what is fundamentally a foreign art form, still looking for ways to make it their own.  This may account for some of what I discerned in While I Was Waiting.  (When I visited a museum in Istanbul dedicated to Turkish modern art, I learned that the Ottoman Empire used to send nascent indigenous artists to Paris for art training and they usually came back imitating Western European techniques and styles to depict Turkish subjects and themes.  It has taken generations for Turkish modern artists to begin to find a truly Turkish form of painting and sculpture—and, to my eye, they still haven’t gotten very good at it.  This may find its parallel in theater in the Arab world.)

A co-production of Festival d’Avignon, Napoli Teatro Festival, AFAC Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Pôle Arts de la scène – Friche La Belle de Mai (Marseille), Theater Spektakel (Zurich), Onassis Cultural Centre (Athens), Vooruit (Ghent), La Bâtie Festival de Genève, Les Bancs publics – Festival Les Rencontres à l’échelle (Marseille), and Festival d’Automne à Paris, While I Was Waiting was written by Mohammad Al Attar starting in 2015.  Based on the story of a friend of director Omar Abusaada, with whom Al Attar first collaborated in 2007, it was premièred at the Kunsten Festival in Brussels in May 2016.  It won the ZKB (Züricher Kantonalbank) Patronage Prize at the 2016 Züricher Theater Spektakel and was selected for the 70th Festival d’Avignon in France in July 2016.  Before its run in New York City, While I Was Waiting was presented in Athens and the French cities of Marseille and Lille.  The North American première of the play opened on 19 July 2017 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a component of the City University of New York, on West 59th Street; it ran through the 22nd and I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 21 July. 

Over its 22 seasons, the Lincoln Center Festival has presented 1,465 performances of opera, music, dance, theater, and interdisciplinary forms by internationally acclaimed artists from more than 50 countries.  In that time, the festival has commissioned 44 new works and offered 145 world, North American, U.S., and New York premieres.  It places particular emphasis on showcasing contemporary artistic viewpoints and multidisciplinary works that challenge the boundaries of traditional performance.  This summer’s festival, celebrating 50 years since Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts launched the first prototype for the annual international festival, includes 20 international productions and 43 performances from 17 nations.

Since its opening in 1988, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater has been a cultural resource for John Jay College and New York City.  The theater’s dedicated to the creation and presentation of performing arts programming of all disciplines with a special focus on how art can illuminate the perception of justice in U.S. society.  The Lynch Theater’s also a member of CUNY Stages, a consortium of 16 performing arts centers located on City University campuses across New York City.  The theater’s hosted events in the Lincoln Center Festival since the LCF’s first season in 1996, as well as presenting performances by the New York City Opera, Great Performers at Lincoln Center, Gotham Chamber Opera, Metropolitan Opera Guild, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater/Ailey II.  The theater’s also been the site of many television and film specials including A&E’s Live by Request, Comedy Central Presents and Premium Blend; Robert Klein in Concert; and VH1’s Soundtrack Live.

Driving out of Damascus one day in 2015, in search of locations for a documentary film,  and after passing through one of the many checkpoints that dot the city, Taim (Mohammad Alrefai), a tyro filmmaker in his late 20’s, was pulled over on the road and beaten unconscious.  He reappeared later at a hospital and now lies in a deep coma, which the playwright calls a “grey zone,” somewhere between life and death.  No one knows who the assailants were or why Taim was attacked.  Was it political?  Common thuggery?  Drug related?  In the Damascus of 2015, it could be any of these.  The incident forces his family to confront painful realities and buried revelations.  After surviving the murder of Taim’s father, and the scandal it revealed, his mother, who gravitated to conservative Islam and took to wearing traditional garb, and sister, who’d fled to Beirut years before to escape her mother’s religiosity, seem incapable of facing his coma, “neither alive nor dead, this grey zone somewhere between hope and despair.”  From his liminal state, the young man observes from a platform overlooking the stage or wanders unseen among his family and friends, as his mother, Amal (Hanan Chkir), and older sister, Nada (Nanda Mohammad), who’s returned to Damascus for her brother, and, in Al Attar’s words, “watches his family members and friends struggle with the idea of losing him as well as a reality that is becoming fiercer every day.”

Together the characters tell us about the upheaval in their everyday lives, and about the changes that have struck the Syrian capital, now become strange and cruel.  Taim’s joined in his otherworldly commentary by his friend Omar (Mustafa Kur), tortured to death—or perhaps only nearly—in 2014 in one of Bashar Al Assad’s prisons.  (The waking characters don’t see or hear these two—only we do.)  As Taim’s family comes and goes from his hospital bedside—which remains empty to the audience (though the other characters still see Taim lying there) once Alrefai rises at the top of the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute play—performed without intermission in Arabic with English supertitles (translation by Lana Abdo and supertitles operated by Tarek Hefny)—Taim’s also visited by his girlfriend, Salma (Reham Kassar) and an older friend, Osama (Mohammad Alrashi), a kind of aging hippie (and would-be songwriter who’s never finished a song) who seems to have been Taim’s hashish connection.  The play depicts how Taim’s family and friends go on living while he hangs in his halfway state.  As the play ends, the family circle is still in turmoil, and Taim, still in the grey zone, is being brought home.  And the country’s still in the throes of a seemingly endless civil war.  Taim’s family must continue to wait for some resolution to his in-between state—just as all Syrians must wait for some resolution of the state of the country.

What happens in the play is that on one level, there’s a basically realistic plot of the family and friends coping with Taim’s coma and managing their daily existences, with all the problems of a dysfunctional family anywhere in the world, while the city and its infrastructure deteriorate around them from the civil war.  “You tend to think about those people that you see through reports in the media as characters, not as human beings,” Al Attar says, adding that “by trying to focus on one family you see that Syrians are much closer to you than you think.”  In fact, the play’s not unlike a soap opera, with the bickering, teasing, fighting, and scolding, except the performances are more convincing.  

On another level, the comatose Taim and Omar comment on what’s happening and make observations.  “How can nothing have changed after all that happened?” asks Omar, referring to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in the six years of civil war, yet the dictatorial regime is still in place.  Abusaada declares, “I think [Taim] can see, listen and feel what is happening—but he can’t react to what’s happening around [him]”; he and Omar can’t affect anything going on in the waking world, just as many Syrians can see what’s happening in the country, but can’t do anything about it.  Playwright Al Attar explains:

While I Was Waiting is an attempt to tell the story of a people who are still trying to survive—the story behind the images on screens and in newspapers and beyond the complex political analysis, all of which often ignore the fate of ordinary humans and the deep transformations happening in their lives, thoughts, and beliefs.  This story of a middle-class family is similar to many families in Damascus and Syria in general.  Its members are trying to survive during a time of violence, war, and social change. In this quest, they greatly transform as individuals; some decide to engage in long-deferred confrontations while others are content to observe.

The play, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (whose French title means “While Waiting for Godot”), takes place while the characters await some kind of resolution and the action is what they do while waiting.

The realistic plot works perfectly well.  Bissane Al Charif’s set’s fragmentary, but everything else in this aspect of While I Was Waiting is pretty much Realism.  The stark lighting was designed by Abdulhameed Khaleifa—though because of President Trump’s now-effective travel ban against Syrians, he was denied a visa and the design was executed at the Lynch by “Lighting Interpreter” Zakaria Al-Alami.  This aspect of the play can be very wrenching emotionally with the Assad dictatorship and the civil war as a backdrop.  The cast to an actor was clearly so committed to this play and its context that it would be easy to imagine I wasn’t watching skilled actors creating characters, but the characters themselves participating in a psychodrama. 

The ethereal level doesn’t work as well for me—it’s not fully realized, I think (in terms of presentational style, for instance) and there are multi-media elements (Taim’s videos, created by Reem Al Ghazzi, and music and sound by wannabe-DJ Omar, designed by Samer Saem Eldahr, also known as electronic music artist Hello Psychaleppo—who also contributed the original music, a sort of Middle Eastern rock sound, for the show) that aren’t thoroughly developed or integrated.  From the physical and vocal portrayals—since I couldn’t understand the Arabic dialogue—there were times I felt that both Alrefai and Kur were uncomfortable with these scenes, and when Taim’s consciousness was walking among his waking family and friends, he seemed like he thought he was somewhere he shouldn’t be and was afraid he’d be “discovered.”

Then there’s yet another dimension to the play.  Taim is also  “a thinly veiled metaphor” for Syria, which the playwright also sees as existing in a “grey zone.”  For Abusaada, the “state between life and death represented the limbo that is war.”  Al Attar sees a parallel between the situations of the comatose Taim, who, with his friend Omar, had been enthusiastic participants in the 2011 uprising, born of the hopeful Arab Spring, against the Al Assad dictatorship, and that of Syria as a nation; he explains that

the situation in Syria was becoming increasingly complex and was worsening.  The regime’s excessive violence against protesters transformed the peaceful revolution against the most brutal dictatorship in the region into a fierce war, which soon turned into a proxy war waged at an international and regional level without involving the Syrians.  In this horrible picture there are still Syrians in the country or in the diaspora who are trying to resist death and displacement.  Their resistance, in its most instinctive form, lies in their insistence on surviving and in their refusal to give up the dream of positive change; they refuse to choose between Assad’s military fascism that has ruled the country for half a century and the religious fascism represented by ISIS and the like.

Both Taim and Omar, who’d even gone so far as to join the jihadist Al Nusra Front, became disaffected when they began to see that the tactics of the resistance were as vile as those of the regime.

This parallel isn’t explicit in the script—Al Attar explains it in a program note and the concept appears in most of the press and program coverage for the production—and it’s supposed to be subliminal.  Al Attar explains that

in our continuous attempts to understand the changes in Syria through theater, the story of the coma seemed to be the most appropriate framework for comprehending our absurd conditions.  Throughout the coma, reality’s cruelty and roughness can merge with our dreams and imaginings, which are our only escape from the harsh reality.  The coma also seemed to be an entry point from which to think about the tens of thousands of Syrians who forcibly disappeared or were imprisoned or whose bodies lay somewhere without graves.

I’m not sure this works, either, since I doubt viewers would get it without the note.  (I try to imagine Syrians seeing this play and I wonder if they’d get this concept when we Westerners wouldn’t without help.  I have a feeling they’d need to be told, too.)  But even though it doesn’t really work on its own, I find the idea praiseworthy because it raises the play’s impact a notch or two.  It’s clear that Taim’s circle stands in for ordinary Syrians, those who try to lead regular lives and are unaffiliated with Assad, ISIS and the jihadists, or even the Free Syrian Army, and that’s pretty compelling; but making the play speak for the country as a whole would be powerful.  The metaphor is worth working on to see if there are ways to make it clearer without actually spelling it out in the text.  I don’t know if it would ever be possible, but I like the attempt.

The idea for what became While I Was Waiting came to director Abusaada two years ago when he heard about a close friend who went through an ordeal identical to Taim’s and died after spending two months in a coma.  He visited the friend and met other people who had gone through similar experiences and then took his material to Al Attar who penned the play that he says is “a way of thinking of all those who are not with us and whose fates are unknown, of their mothers, of all who are in doubt, which is one of the biggest tragedies facing the Syrian people today.”  On several visits to Syrian hospitals, Abusaada met doctors as well as families facing the tragedy of a loved one’s coma.  He recorded their stories in order to understand the mysteries of this strange state and the ways in which the families and friends handled the pain of this “omnipresence of absence.”  From these strains, Abusaada and Al Attar conjured this tale that weaves together different levels of consciousness and the symbolic image of their homeland.

They also see the play as a reflection of their dreams for a Syrian political theater “whose values failed to become real when it was still possible.”  Theater, Abusaada asserts, “could be a tool of resistance.”  Says Al Attar: “For Syrians such as Omar Abusaada and myself, theater is our way to cling to hope and to resist despair.  This has given us a renewed impetus to reflect on the meaning of theater today.”  The playwright continues: “The more our reality deteriorates and the scenes in Syria become increasingly violent and bloody, the more we need to know about the conditions of ordinary people hiding behind the images transmitted to our television screens.” 

Mohammad Al Attar, 36, a dramaturg as well as a playwright, was born in Damascus.  He graduated with a degree in English literature from Damascus University in 2002 and a degree in Theatrical Studies from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus in 2007.  He also received a master’s degree in Applied Drama (with special focus on the political and social role of theater) from Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, in 2010.  His theatrical works—which include Withdrawal, Samah, an improvisational work with a group of boys in a reform school; Online; Look at the Streets . . . This Is What Hope Looks Like; Could You Please Look into the Camera?; A Chance Encounter; Intimacy; and Antigone of Shatila, a contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’ play reset in the Lebanese refugee camp—have been performed in Damascus, London, New York, Seoul, Berlin, Brussels, Edinburgh, Tunis, Athens, Marseilles, and Beirut.  He’s written for numerous magazines and newspapers, with a special focus on the Syrian uprising.  Along with his writings for the stage, he uses theater in special projects with marginalized groups across the Arab world, including children from a depressed area on the outskirts of the old city of Tunis and women in the refugee camps outside Beirut.

Omar Abusaada, a 40-year-old director and playwright also from Damascus, started working as a dramaturg after finishing his theatrical studies at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus.  He then moved into directing and cofounded the Studio Theater in Damascus and in 2004 directed his first theatrical work, Insomnia.  He directed the première of While I Was Waiting at the Kunsten Festival and at the 70th edition of Festival d’Avignon and had previously collaborated with Al Attar on Samah, Look at the Streets . . . This Is What Hope Looks Like, Antigone of Shatila, Could You Please Look into the Camera?, and Intimacy.  He’s also directed Al Affich; Almirwad Wa Almikhala; and Syrian Trojan Women.  He’s introduced into Syria different ideas of contemporary writing and documentary, and the practices of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and has worked for years in remote villages and local communities in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen.  Abusaada also leads workshops in contemporary theater writing and directing.

There is another character in While I Was Waiting: the ancient city of Damascus.  Both playwright Al Attar and director Abusaada were born and grew up there, as did most of the cast.  But while Abusaada splits his time between his native city and Berlin, Al Attar left Damascus “against my will” in 2012 and eventually settled in the German capital, where he now lives and works.  Many of the cast and production staff of While I Was Waiting are expatriate Damascenes and, of course, the play can’t be performed in Syria because of its implied and stated political and social commentary; Al Attar vows he “cannot return as long as the Assad regime is in power,” even though all the rest of his family remains in Damascus.  “[T]he city still lives within me wherever I go,” affirms the playwright.   Even Abusaada, though he insists on remaining a resident of Damascus, can no longer work in Syria “since my work has this political interest.  I cannot really work in a free way.  Even everyday life is really hard, in terms of electricity, heating, transportation.”

For Al Attar and Abusaada, the city itself is significant to the play.  The playwright insists that While I Was Waiting 

is also the story of the city of Damascus, whose center has remained under horrific security control by the regime while overwhelming bombardment and siege take place on its outskirts.  The city has witnessed countless wars, invasions, and fires throughout its history and is currently witnessing new seasons of violent change.  It’s the city in which I was born and grew up, without ever feeling that I understood it well.

“The images of Damascus have been present in my long discussions with Omar and in our tireless attempts to understand its transformations and the future that awaits it,” Al Attar declares.  Much is made of Nada’s choice to leave the city for a life in Beirut, and in the last scenes of the play, while Nada seems to have decided to resettle in Damascus and live in her brother’s apartment while she tries to get his film produced, Taim’s girlfriend considers leaving their home city for Turkey.  Taim’s film was going to be a history of the city told through his family, for which purpose he’d been collecting old family photos and letters.  Scenes from his documentary, projected on the scrim that makes up a wall in the upper level of his and Omar’s platform, are all shots of Damascus in turmoil. 

In sum, While I Was Waiting is a fascinating play.  As I indicated, I  feel that it didn’t entirely work, but the idea’s interesting.  I surveyed four reviews of the Lincoln Center presentation.  (Critical coverage of Lincoln Center Festival performances is somewhat haphazard and curtailed because of their often limited readership appeal and the briefness of their runs.  Show-Score didn’t cover While I Was Waiting or the other Lincoln Center Festival show I attended, so there are no ratings calculations to report.)

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness, calling While I Was Waiting a “subtle and devastating new work,” observed that the “juxtaposition of everyday human frailty and world-historical catastrophe sits at the heart of While I Was Waiting.”  Reports McGuinness: “Sectarian conflict may be raging all around, but the focus of Attar’s superbly acted six-hander is on how one ordinary, middle-class family and their friends struggle to keep going amid the chaos.”  Noting that “war here entails long stretches of tedium punctuated by blistering moments of violence,” the FT reviewer deemed, “It is a testament to Attar and director Omar Abusaada’s sense of theatrical restraint that the latter are never depicted on stage, save for the sound of distant gunshots caught on video.”  The play’s focus, McGuinness wrote, is Taim’s empty hospital bed, “a fitting metonym for the invisibility of the conflict’s victims.”  The review-writer’s final assessment was that “the play itself, which is rich in gallows humour and devoid of sentimentality, refuses to offer any tidy political or indeed dramatic resolution.  The war and life just go on.”

The New York Times’ Jesse Green dubbed While I Was Waiting “a subtly harrowing play,” reporting that it “gets around the [‘hectoring and grandiosity’ of political plays] by embracing failure as its central subject: the failure of government, yes, but also of resistance.”  Syria’s “sense of stasis despite enormous disruption”—the continuing civil violence that doesn’t seem to change anything—“is what gives Mr. Al Attar’s play its convincing bite,” found Green.  The tension between the ordinariness of the waking characters and the grim situation of Taim, “along with some astonishing visual images that arise from it, keeps ‘While I Was Waiting’ on a narrow course between horror and banality.”  After praising a “wonderful” moment in which Omar blows soap bubbles down on Salma, Green caviled that he “was not always convinced that such moments of beauty did justice to the horror of the situation,” but conceded that “that may be the point.”  The Timesman asserted that the play asks “whether we have a moral obligation to live in danger if we can escape it, or whether our obligation is rather the opposite.”  He offered, however, “Living in the gray zone does not seem to be an answer.”  In his concluding judgment, Green averred, “Taim seems to have succumbed to an ideology of hopelessness that Mr. Al Attar and the company of his play have survived,” referring to the sometimes perilous decisions of company members about where they live and what they do.  “In doing so, they have given new life to the idea of political theater by showing us how it may look a lot like domestic drama, as seen from above.”

“When one’s entire life is spent waiting, how does one measure the time?” asked Alia Malek in the New Yorker.  This is what While I Was Waiting depicts as Al Attar, Abusaada, and the actors “bring this reality to a New York stage, capturing dynamics rarely explored by non-Syrians.”  Malek, who’s a Syrian and a Damascene herself, acknowledged that the play “forces us to remember the country’s Taims and Omars . . . but it is also an indictment of the living.”  She added that “people living under authoritarian regimes are the victims of those who rule them; they also, however, become bystanders to brutality.  In Syria, we are complicit even if not directly to blame.”  Like the characters in the play, Malek felt the draw of the city for its natives: “home is home.”  Like Nada and Salma, “nearly six million Syrians have fled the country”; even, we learn at the end, Taim had planned to flee his homeland and native city.

On the Huffington Post, David Finkle asserted that While I Was Waiting “demands immediate attention” because it’s rare for New York City to play “host to a Syrian playwright and a Syrian director commenting on conditions in their war-afflicted country,” especially when that country is so much in the headlines in the United States.  Finkle pronounced While I Was Waiting  “a sturdy play that gets at the macrocosmic breadth of a horrifying situation . . . by going extremely microcosmic and thereby earning the attention accorded it.”  The HP reviewer, it seems, had problems accepting Taim’s ability to witness, while in his comatose state, occurrences not just in his hospital room, but elsewhere in the city.  “But perhaps that . . . is just a reviewer being too literal,” the journalist offered.  (Ya think?)  Finkle also noted that “the family bouts are surprisingly out of the ordinary” and complained that they “don’t lift the drama to an impressively higher dramaturgical level.”  He concluded that “While I Was Waiting reaches no easy conclusions.  How could it?” Finkle asked, pointing out, “In reflecting the uncertainty suggested in the title, it acquires the poignancy shared by a group of people who love their country but remain adrift amid its tragic upheaval.  Al Attar keeps this element present right up to the final, heartbreaking fade-out.”

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