Watershed Discussion… The Washington Post Assesses Evening #1

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Caryl Churchill's provocative work, originally staged above in London, is an eight-minute play that left emotions running high at Theater J.
Caryl Churchill’s provocative work, originally staged above in London, is an eight-minute play that left emotions running high at Theater J. (By Keith Pattison)                                  

Washington Post Staff Writer 
Friday, March 27, 2009; Page C01

Click here to read at washingtonpost.com

The post-show “talkback” has become a staple of theater around these parts, a way for serious-minded companies to offer a bit of extra value — and explanation for their work — to audiences. Now, however, the after-performance discussion has been elevated to something on the order of performance art, courtesy of the sensitive and savvy folks who run Theater J.

The troupe, based at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, decided to make an interactive evening out of the controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s inflammatory new eight-minute play, “Seven Jewish Children.” It would have been easy for Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, to have turned the reflection on this piece of agitprop — which in the aftermath of the Gaza invasion heaps outrage on Israelis’ purported moral blindness — into a posturing focus-group gab-a-thon.

Instead, what transpired Wednesday night in the intimate Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater amounted to a watershed in the evolution of immediate dialogue between a political play and its audience. The brevity of the piece certainly helped distill to vivid sound bites the attendees’ instantaneous reactions. But the way Roth constructed the event, bringing together actors, theatergoers, experts and even, via e-mail, Churchill herself, conferred on it some of the formalized gravity of a symposium and the messy urgency of an emergency meeting.

It was, for this professional spectator, fascinating.

It’s not standard form to review the audience. (We’re not conditioned to take the measure of art by a show of hands.) On this evening, though, a failure to assess the impact of the engaged, thoughtful crowd — an audience of young and old, Jews and Gentiles alike — would be a disservice to the production. Listening to the sharp give-and-take became as integral to the experience, in fact, as listening to the eight fine actors seated around a table, reading from Churchill’s script and the scripts of two other playwrights. The additional dramatists — Robbie Gringras, an Israeli, and the American Deb Margolin — wrote playlets critical of Churchill’s that mimic hers in structure and style.

Theater J sponsored the staged reading in conjunction with Forum Theatre, a smaller company based at the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington that has previously mounted Churchill’s work. A second reading was held last night by Theater J; tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, the venue changes to H Street, where Forum and its artistic director, Michael Dove, will take over the readings and after-show debate (admission to those performances is free).

The atmosphere will no doubt be altered each time this exercise occurs, and the formula might be difficult to replicate, depending on who leads the talk and who shows up to participate. Not to minimize their cause, but the presence Thursday night outside the Jewish Community Center of a group of demonstrators protesting the reading — some of them holding placards calling for Roth’s ouster — contributed to the theatrical electricity. During the discussion, an audience member remarked on this added dimension, saying that the little hubbub on the street made her attendance feel “unsafe.”

“Seven Jewish Children” (subtitled “A Play for Gaza”) is briefer than your average infomercial and 100 times more provocative. Make no mistake, though, it is a commercial, an effort to compress to black-and-white a question of conscience of infinite complexity. Divided into seven chapters, the playlet is structured as a series of staccato demands of one Jewish adult to another, about how to shield from, or explain to, an unseen child the harsh realities of their world.

Although the circumstances are slightly opaque — this is Churchill, after all — each chapter appears to refer to a period of modern Jewish history, starting with a section about the persecution of Jews in Europe in the 19th century. It progresses to the Holocaust and ultimately to contemporary Israel, where the tone changes, and the adults’ declarations are evoked as more hostile, inhumane. As someone put it Wednesday night, the playlet takes the position that the persecuted have become the persecutors.

Because Churchill is such a compelling dramatist — she’s the author of, among other plays, “Top Girls,” “Cloud Nine,” “A Number” and “Far Away” — the presentation is literarily seductive. Ultimately, though, it’s so reductive that it can be consigned to the category of beautifully crafted cheap shot, an effort to cast a multifaceted conflict as intractably one-sided.

The range of responses articulated Wednesday night, however, revealed that some were unmoved and others were deeply affected. Roth himself grappled with his own reactions in an opening speech that lasted roughly twice the length of Churchill’s play. Skillfully, he took on the job of drawing out audience response, a task he repeated after the readings of Gringas’s “One Israeli Child” and “The Eighth Jewish Child,” and Margolin’s “Seven Palestinian Children.”

One of the most intriguing interludes occurred after Roth invited to sit with him on the stage Amitai Etzioni, the German-born sociologist, a professor at George Washington University, who was taken to Palestine in the 1930s to escape the Nazis. After the reading, Etzioni said he was upset that the audience didn’t react angrily after an actor — presumably speaking as an Israeli — spoke the line, “We deliberately killed babies.”

Immediately, a member of the cast jumped forward to point out that there was no such declaration in the play; the line was actually “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake.” (Which, actually, among various possibilities could still be interpreted as the adult advising the child of a lie.) Still, an audience member found in Etzioni’s reaction an indication of a Rorschach quality of the piece.

“The professor,” he declared, “wanted a stronger reaction to a line that wasn’t in the play!”

And so it went. Roth gave his audience a chance to digest and puzzle out en masse, in an entirely exhilarating way. Which on the whole seems grounds not for dismissal, but a raise.