The complexities and contradictions of life are illustrated in two very different late-night shows on Tucson's stages: the stirring, tragic My Name Is Rachel Corrie, part of Live Theatre Workshop's Etcetera series, and the lighter Interrogating the Nude, at Beowulf Alley's Late Night Theatre.
My Name Is Rachel Corrie began its controversial life in London in 2005. Created by Alan Rickman (best known as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films) and Katharine Viner, the script is taken from the writings of Corrie, a young American peace activist who died in the Gaza Strip in 2003. Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian home from demolition.
Performed entrancingly by Elizabeth Leadon-Sonnenfelt, the one-woman play traces a circuitous outline of Corrie's life, as told through her journals, e-mails, to-do lists and personal musings. Director Christopher Johnson skillfully creates "chapters" that flow along almost seamlessly; each section is distinguished from the next only through the subtlest altering of costume.
At first, Corrie lies in bed, swathed in an enormous red-and-orange comforter. It's initially hard to believe the text is from her actual journal entries, because she speaks in a sort of poetry, describing visions of being swallowed up by the ceiling. This is her inner world, crowded with peculiar detail and threatened by inescapable forces.
As her thoughts return to childhood, she emerges from the blanket. Leadon-Sonnenfelt stands in torn jeans and a tank top, her slight frame looking defenseless against the world.
Corrie shares tales of a childhood fueled by her fertile imagination, but what's extraordinary is how ordinary she seems. She's no martyr-in-training (or troublemaking ideologue, depending on your perspective). She's just another girl growing up. The turning point of her childhood comes when Corrie takes a trip to Russia. For the first time, she sees life outside of her comfortable world, and realizes how much she has taken for granted.
Pulling on a dark-green shirt, Corrie becomes an adult, stronger and more confident. She still feels like an outsider, she confesses, but this allows her to see injustices that are invisible to others. Though she insists that she is afraid of people and "community," she becomes active in social causes in her home state of Washington.
Finally, she travels to Gaza as a member of the International Solidarity Movement, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders that evokes Middle Eastern attire. As she is housed and fed by Palestinians in the city of Rafah, she organizes peaceful protests and works to protect homes and wells from being destroyed by the Israeli military.
She also tries to help her family back home understand the conflict from a perspective rarely presented in the American media: A frightened and impoverished people are being subjected to inhuman treatment, and acts of Palestinian violence are futile attempts to stand against the might of Israel's powerful military.
One weakness of the script is that it lacks historical context, drawn as it is from the personal writings of a single person. Rickman and Viner clearly felt no obligation to balance Corrie's opinions with contrasting perspectives.
Corrie was in Gaza during the Second Intifada (which lasted roughly from 2001 to 2006), yet there is no portrayal of Palestinian violence against Israelis. Many critics argue that the presence of foreign activists like Corrie aggravated a bad situation; others claim that Corrie's death was purely an accident, that the driver of the bulldozer could not see her.
Narratively, the play fails to create an effective buildup to its conclusion. If you already know the approximate date and manner of Corrie's death at age 23, then the passing days and events of the final chapter provide tension and foreshadowing. Without that information, the end comes abruptly.
For some, the political controversy will define this play. But what is brilliant is that Corrie's words aren't couched in ideology, but in personal experience and compassion.
Leadon-Sonnenfelt's virtuoso performance takes full advantage of her quirky energy and angularity, while building to moments of great passion. She speaks almost continuously for 90 minutes, yet her presentation has the variety of an infinite playlist. Her hands flit through the air as she talks, magically evoking every detail she describes.
Watching My Name Is Rachel Corrie may or may not be a wakeup call to social awareness, but it will certainly offer a moment of intimate connection to an extraordinary life.
Those who prefer not to dwell on the darker side of life might enjoy a visit to Late Night Theatre's Interrogating the Nude. An early work by playwright Doug Wright (a 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife), it might easily be referred to as Law and Order: Surrealist Victims Unit.
It's 1917, and an eccentric man with a French accent walks into a New York City police station and confesses to a brutal murder. His name, Marcel Duchamp, may mean nothing to the Inspector, but anyone familiar with that iconic real-life craftsman of surreal art and provocation will guess that all is not as it seems.
Bouncing between film noir and screwball comedy, the play unveils a sordid love triangle among Duchamp, his (fictitious) twin sister (and lover) Rose, and fellow artist Man Ray. Wright is known for playing with the nature of gender in his plays, and this trifle is no exception.
The production is rough around the edges, but led by director Scott O'Brien, the enthusiastic cast delivers some good laughs.
The most fully realized performance is delivered by Evan Engle as the Inspector. He captures the cadence of a New York cop while displaying madcap comic timing. Brian Hanson is a great, physical Constable, full of tics and mugging. O'Brien (Duchamp), Aelynn Heinrichs (Rose) and Josh Parra (Ray) are clearly enjoying themselves, but they don't evince much eccentricity beyond what is found in Wright's words.
How is it possible that two ordinary-Joe cops come across as zanier than two of history's leading surrealists? It's another of life's contradictions.