‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ depicts struggle over moving forward

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Writer and performer Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem, now at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by Teddy Wolff
Writer and performer Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem, now at Mosaic Theater Company of DC.
Photo by Teddy Wolff

 

“It’s complicated.”

Those are the first words we hear from actor-playwright Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem. His “complicated” relationship status has nothing to do with who he’s dating and everything to do with a country he loves and is desperately trying to understand — Israel. In his one-man multi-character play, he becomes an American Every Jew on a journey to hear the loud, pained and disparate voices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It all comes together in a compact 80 minutes as the initial salvo in Mosaic Theater Company’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, playing primarily at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in northeast Washington through May 1.


The theme, “The War Comes Home,” will play out in various modes and a multiplicity of voices from across the political and national spectrum with five plays.

On opening night for Wrestling Jerusalem, which runs through Jan. 24, Mosaic founder and artistic director Ari Roth underscored that Davidman’s play, which has been a decade-plus in the making, was initially commissioned by the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Theater J in 2007. In resuscitating his sometimes controversial Voices festival as a cornerstone of Mosaic’s programming, Roth noted about the festival relaunch: “It’s one of the reasons we’re here” at the Atlas.

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Played out against the glowing golden-hued backdrop  by Nephelie Andonyadis, a Jackson Pollack-like abstraction that intermittently suggests the Holy City’s golden stones, the Judean desert and mountains of the Negev, the play brings Davidman to his knees in its first moments. He recalls his first trip to Israel, when he naively stepped off the plane onto the hot tarmac in Tel Aviv as his fellow travelers sped past to get through customs and luggage pickup.

Davidman faces arguments and rapprochements from all sides, hearing from — and becoming —Palestinian moderates, Israeli settlers, secular Zionists, a rabbi or two, a former Israeli army intelligence officer, a Moslem cleric, a pot-smoking survivor of a pigu’a, a bombing, and many more.


There are moments of somber reflection, historical recaps, mini-sermons and histrionic conversations. All circle around the issue of one land to which two peoples and three religions lay claim — politically, historically, religiously and emotionally.

Davidman, who served as artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theater for nearly a decade, parses through his battery of conversations, changing accent, demeanor, voice and posture to indicate his change in character. He, too, plays a role, as seeker and interviewer, providing his own background and influences, from his memories of socialist Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, to his delving into Torah study on that first trip to Israel to his more recent quest for answers to this centuries old conflict of whose land, which people, and how or whether peace or even co-existence can be achieved. “What,” this play asks plaintively, plangently, “is the way forward?”

Director Michael John Garces brings fluidity and grace to what could easily devolve into a series of short, choppy monologues. Instead, he uses Davidman’s physicality as an actor to cut a continually moving swath across the Lang Theater’s stage. There’s nothing static in solving the Middle East peace process and there’s nothing static in the journey Davidman is taking.

What’s so lovely, and lovingly done, in Wrestling Jerusalem is that we see the tangible physicality of that struggle in the actor’s approach to his play. Additional credit goes to choreographer Stacey Printz, who has added a simple but evocative debka — an Arabic and later Israeli adapted dance — as well as likely some other memorable movement motifs that Davidman moves through with power and grace.
Davidman’s journey ends as it began: Alone on stage, facing the existential conflict of Israeli statehood and nationhood as an American Jew, still searching, still seeking answers, finding only his personal declaration of faith as solace.

Wrestling Jerusalem is a powerful way to start a conversation in the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival.

Wrestling Jerusalem through Jan. 24, Mosaic Theater Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H -Street, NE, Washington. Tickets $20-$40. Visit: www.mosaictheater.org or call 202-399-7993, ext. 2.

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