WATERTOWN - A lot of noise surrounds "My Name Is Rachel Corrie." Like so many works that touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this play may be better known for the protests against it and the controversies about it than for the work itself.
So it's not surprising that New Repertory Theatre, in choosing "Rachel Corrie" to close its second season of Downstage @ New Rep performances, also chose to pair it with another play about Israel, this one from a more pro-Israeli point of view. It's even less surprising that the first play announced for that slot was pulled, because relatives of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (whose late brother is a central figure in that piece) objected to having it share the stage with a play they deemed too pro-Palestinian in its focus on a young American woman who died protesting in Gaza.
To fill out the bill, New Rep decided to present Zohar Tirosh's "Pieces" in repertory with "Rachel Corrie"; both are one-woman shows that offer highly personal perspectives on an internationally controversial subject, the ongoing struggle for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In some ways, the pairing makes sense: The works feel similar in scale and style, and they fit neatly onto a shared set (cleanly designed by David R. Gammons, who also directs "Rachel Corrie") with only slight alterations. They're also politically "balanced" enough, apparently, to have muted the kind of outrage that has accompanied "Rachel Corrie" stagings elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it's a pity that New Rep found it necessary to create this kind of balance. It's a pity because, although the theater has emphasized that it's not trying to reduce a complex situation to just two perspectives, it's hard not to read a double bill that way: "Here's one side and here's the other." Even with the admirable slate of staged readings, panel discussions, and films that the company is presenting in support of these works, putting the two plays together forces us to view them through a reductively binary lens.
It's also unfortunate because no two plays in the world can exactly balance each other. They're individual works of art, not position papers, and they must each be judged on their own merits - not just on how they connect to the real political issues they engage, but also on how they succeed as works of art. Here, "Pieces" and "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" are simply not balanced at all.
Neither is a perfect play, but "Rachel Corrie" is more expertly crafted, more movingly written, and, at least in these productions, more essentially theatrical than "Pieces." Let me emphasize that that's an aesthetic judgment, not a political one. But let me also say that it can be hard to disentangle the two, and that's why I'd rather see each play presented on its own.
In "Pieces," Tirosh reflects on her own experience as a young Israeli, studying drama in New York City, who returns to Israel to serve her mandated two years' army service in the Israel Defense Forces. Much of it will feel familiar from decades of life-in-the-barracks tales: the tough sergeant, the charmingly diverse bunkmates, the boredom and exhaustion and fear. But of course this isn't "Biloxi Blues" or even "Private Benjamin," because it's taking place in an Israeli boot camp, not an American one, and so war, even in the relatively peaceful time when Tirosh was drafted, is always just around the corner.
Tirosh plays herself, with occasional impersonations of some other characters. Too often, though, she is narrating rather than enacting her trials as girlfriend, actress, and, oh yeah, draftee. This makes "Pieces" feel a bit like listening in on any 20-something's conversation; it's all, all, all about her, in a way that distances us from making connections between our own lives and hers. The writer Tirosh's occasional passages of purple description aren't aided by the actress Tirosh's sometimes heavily emphatic delivery. Though her concluding plea for peace is clearly heartfelt, "Pieces" needs refinement and revision if it's to serve as an effective vehicle for her convictions.
Paradoxically, "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" is ultimately more persuasive because it starts by allowing us to see its protagonist as a naive, self-absorbed flibbertigibbet. The British actor Alan Rickman and the journalist Katharine Viner have expertly shaped Corrie's own journal entries and e-mails into a complex and moving portrait.
The play's Rachel Corrie, here portrayed with endearing vitality and quintessentially youthful self-contradiction by Stacy Fischer, first appears huddled under a comforter in her messy room decorated with postcards and stuffed animals, and we realize: Oh, she's a kid. A college kid, with idealistic dreams of becoming an artist and saving the world, but a privileged, white, American middle-class kid who's never actually had to face genuine hardship or conflict.
And then she ends up in Gaza. She's there, the play tells us, to protest the bulldozing of Palestinian homes by the Israel Defense Forces. Most people in the audience already know how that story ends, with her death in 2003 when one of those bulldozers knocked her down. Some of the controversy about the play concerns whether it accurately depicts these circumstances: Was she protecting homes or smugglers' tunnels? Did the bulldozer driver see her? Was her death an accident or a murder?
But the experience of actually watching the play leaves us less interested in those questions, and more interested in the development of a specific, flawed, but fascinating human being. The almost giddy young girl we met at the outset has, by the end, grown into a far sadder, more complicated, and yet still resiliently optimistic woman.
Of course this play tells Corrie's story from a personal perspective, not a universal or objective one. That's what makes it a play, not a news story. And that's what makes it worth watching, worth thinking about, and worth discussing rather than shouting it down. Thanks to New Rep for giving us all the chance to do just that.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.