OC theater to stage controversial Gaza play
Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co. got one of its first and biggest shots of publicity in 1999 when it staged the West Coast premiere of Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi," a show that previously had riled certain Christian and Muslim groups by depicting Jesus and his disciples as sympathetically drawn gay men.
As the often-confrontational Santa Ana storefront troupe makes its final bow, with plans to split into two new companies, the last script Rude Guerrilla will perform is "Seven Jewish Children, a play for Gaza," a new 10-minute play by eminent English dramatist Caryl Churchill that is single-mindedly critical of the recent Israeli military campaign. It will be staged once, as a reading, on March 22.
Some Jewish leaders in Great Britain have complained that the playlet crosses the line into anti-Semitism. It's currently having its premiere at London's Royal Court Theatre, as a nightcap to Marius von Mayenbug's "The Stone," about a German family's guilty concealment of what its members did during the Holocaust.
At Rude Guerrilla, the staged reading of "Seven Jewish Children" will follow the final performance of the company's last regular production, "A Number." Also by Churchill, it concerns a man who has fathered a proliferation of clones.
"It's one of those chances to talk about something that's going on right now," said Dave Barton, the theater's artistic director. "I thought it was very poetic ... and Churchill, like most of the playwrights we do at Rude Guerrilla, is just holding up a mirror and reflecting back what's being said in society. I've heard every argument in there, from both the Jewish and the Palestinian side, and it's always the same thing, back and forth.
"We don't like to question our behavior, especially when we feel God is on our side, and both the Israelis and the Palestinians think that. The questions need to be asked, they need to be continually brought up. I went with my gut, and my gut feeling says it's a nice piece of work, a good play."
Churchill has posted her script for "Seven Jewish Children" on the Royal Court website, with instructions that any theater can perform it without paying royalties, as long as it secures her publisher's OK, agrees not to charge for admission, and takes up a collection for a London-based relief group, Medical Aid for Palestinians.
"Israel has done lots of terrible things in the past, but what happened in Gaza seemed particularly extreme," the 70-year-old playwright (right) told the Guardian last month.
In seven short scenes, "Seven Jewish Children" obliquely traces recent Jewish history, from the Holocaust to last month's invasion aimed at crippling Hamas in Gaza, which had become a launching pad for missiles targeting Israeli civilians. The dialogue consists entirely of Jews debating what they should or shouldn't tell their children about fear, violence and suffering -- their own and the Palestinians'.
The culminating speech is full of rage: "Tell her we're the iron fist now ... tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out...."
Groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Britain's Zionist Federation and the editorial page of Britain's Jewish Chronicle condemned the play; a Royal Court official told the Guardian that "it is not an attack on anyone, it is a cry of grief."
The show left British critics polarized. In the Jewish Chronicle, John Nathan said that Churchill, a non-Jew, had crossed a line into anti-Semitism by writing an anti-Israel play spoken solely by Jewish characters. But the Guardian's Michael Billington applauded her "remarkably condensed poetic form" as well as her politics: "Avoiding overt didacticism, her play becomes a heartfelt lamentation for future generations who will themselves become victims of the attempted military suppression of Hamas."
The Times of London had an in-house argument: daily critic Dominic Maxwell saw "Seven Jewish Children" as "an impassioned response ... that is eliptical, empathetic and illuminating.... She shows people wrestling with whether to define themselves by their situation or some broader notion of humanity." But Christopher Hart, in the Sunday Times, blasted the "straitjacketed political orthodoxy" in a play he found marred by a "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness.... The enormously complex reasons for such horrors are not considered here."
When Rude Guerrilla did "Corpus Christi," Barton (above right), who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and went on to become a gay-rights activist before co-founding Rude Guerrilla, acknowledged at the time that he was partly motivated by hopes of drawing attention to his then little-known company. But generating controversy is not the intent with "Seven Jewish Children," he said: until Culture Monster told him about Jewish leaders' protests in Britain, "I didn't know there was a controversy."
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Palestinian children play amid rubble in northern Gaza. Credit: Ali Ali/European Pressphoto Agency.
File photo of Caryl Churchill.
Photo: Dave Barton. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times