By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
Does theater have a responsibility to be even-handed? Does polemical theater have a responsibility to be anything other than propaganda?
Or is the responsibility of theater merely to be good theater?
All of those thoughts, and more, ran through my mind during My Name is Rachel Corrie, Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s production of the controversial Alan Rickman-Katherine Viner drama, which is onstage at Lowndes Shakespeare Center only through Sunday night.
Controversial because hardly a word has been written since Rachel Corrie died, in March 2003, that hasn’t enraged somebody or other – first because of the way the 23-year-old American was killed, mowed over by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza while she was trying to act as a human shield for a Palestinian household, and then because of the play based on her journals and emails.
When My Name Is Rachel Corrie opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre, in 2005, even theater critics pointed out that the play’s premise was not exactly balanced. And when New York Theatre Workshop (the off-Broadway originator of Rent) planned to stage the show in early 2006, there was such an outcry from Jewish groups that the production was canceled. (A coalition of other producers, including the Royal Court, opened the play at another off-Broadway theater later the same year.)
Why the outcry? The real-life drama tells the story of an idealistic young American woman who left her hometown of Olympia, Wash., to go to Gaza in the early months of 2003 and found herself in a world she never knew existed. But because Rachel tells the story herself, it’s her side of the violent struggle – and it’s colored by the words of someone who may not have had the strongest grasp of what was going on.
The play itself doesn’t shrink from that idea: “I’m really new to talking about Israel-Palestine,” Rachel says shortly after she has arrived in the Middle East, “so I don’t always know the political implications of my words.”
At the same time, the character of Rachel – as shaped by Rickman and Viner – is trying so hard to do right by the world that your immediate sympathy is likely to be with her.
Co-directors John DiDonna and Emily Killian have staged My Name is Rachel Corrie in the bare-bones little Studio B at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, where the house lights remain half-lit for the entire 100-minute performance to show the pictures and photos that Rachel, in fits of youthful enthusiasm, has supposedly tacked to the walls.
And actress Rebekah Lane plays on that side of Rachel. When first seen, she’s sprawled in bed in the middle of a messy post-teenage room. Lane delivers most of her first page or two of lines with her face in the mattress, and she holds onto that air of careless adolescence – messing with her blond ponytail, giving you the feeling that Rachel is pretty pleased with what she’s doing even though she’s not at all sure what that might be.
That’s an interesting take, entirely justified by the script: Rachel describes herself as “scattered and deviant and too loud.”
And Lane also gets across Rachel’s restlessness (“I got a fire in my belly,” she says) and her need to be transformed by something that is larger than she.
But this young actress doesn’t have the expertise to carry 100 minutes of theater by herself. (It doesn’t help that she struggles with her lines from time to time and mispronounces a word or two.)
And DiDonna and Killian have not led her to make it always clear where Rachel is or what she’s talking about. Unless you’re up on places and events in Palestine you may find yourself bogged down in endless words.
Rachel Corrie’s views are sure to arouse plenty of questions in theatergoers’ minds. Even Rachel herself calls her last speech a “diatribe,” and hearing so much talk from one so young is likely to make audiences long for more seasoned voices. Empty Spaces presents this show with those factors in mind. Each performance is followed by what co-director DiDonna calls a “community conversation,” and on opening night that conversation among audience members lasted for more than an hour.
Even-handed? Probably not. Polished? No. But theater that leaves you asking questions can be the most compelling theater there is.
‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’
- What: Empty Spaces Theatre Co. production of Alan Rickman-Katherine Viner drama, based on the writings of Rachel Corrie.
- Where: Studio B, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
- When: 8:30 p.m. Feb. 24-28, 2 p.m. Feb. 27, with community conversation following each performance.
- Running time: One hour 40 minutes, without no intermission.
- Cost: $20 general, $15 seniors and students.
- Call: 407-328-9005 (cash only at door).
- Online: redchairproject.com.