Review: Tales of a City by the Sea

by Lynn on December 12, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Samah Sabawi

Directed by Rahaf Fasheh

Set by Kayla Chaterji

Costumes by Mira Salti

Lighting by Lidia Foote

Sound by Matt Lalonde

Cast: Liana Bdewi

Basel Daoud

Nawal Hamdan

Anas Hasan

Saja Kilani

Kody Poisson

Naseem Reesha

Maher Sinno

May Tartoussy

Khira Wieting

Singers: Natalie Fasheh

Shireen Abu Khader

Well intentioned but ultimately frustrating.

The Story. We are in a Gaza refugee camp in 2008. Jomana is a Palestinian woman living in the camp. Rami is an American-born Palestinian who practices medicine in Texas. He has come to Gaza on one of the Free Gaza boats to see for himself what is going on there and connect with his roots. In the short time he’s there he falls in love with Jomana and wants to marry her and take her back to the States. She refuses because she fears she will never see her family again. He also fears that if he goes home he won’t see Jomana again. He must return home to his practice. They call each other. They Skype. He finds a way to return. It’s a love story in fraught times.

The Production. Kayla Chaterji has designed a simple, beautiful set of a sturdy fig tree with foliage suspended from what seems like wire octagons, perhaps symbolic of the wire enclosures that keep the Palestinians captive in the refugee camp. There are multi-coloured cushions at the base of the tree where Jomana (Saja Kilani) and her friend Lama (Liana Bdewi) often sit, daydream, listen to music or write poetry. Jomana keeps a journal of what is going on there and also writes her poetry in the journal.

Rahaf Fasheh’s direction is straightforward in establishing relationships. Jomana and Lama are close and share their dreams with girlish delight. When Jomana and Rami (Anas Hasan) are together they face each other and hold hands. Quite often speeches are delivered directly to the audience making it seem like a declaration rather than dialogue, for example Jomana laments the poverty and despair of the people of the camp. Rahaf Fasheh’s direction establishes a clear sense of danger when the camp is bombed—kudos to sound designer Matt Lalonde.

But there is a ‘split-scene’ between Jomana and her father (Basel Daoud) talking about her love for Rami stage right and Rami talking to his mother (May Tartoussy) about the dangers of going back to Gaza, stage left that is clumsy, both in the writing and direction. It does not work. The scene is supposed to alternate between both pairs of speakers but while the cast is committed to the work they are not accomplished enough as actors to pull off the tricky timing of the scene with ease. Often one can’t hear what is being said the speech is so muted.

Shireen Abu Khader is a beautiful, emotional singer who sings several songs in Arabic. These songs are obviously important to the play I just wish there was a list of their names and a translation of what the songs mean, if one is not Arab speaking. Alas the program does not provide either.

The last song is particularly moving because many in the audience quietly sing along with Shireen Abu Khader. Yara Shoufani, the Production Manager was kind enough to explain what the song is in an e-mail: “The song at the end is called “Mawtini” and it means “my homeland”. It has been considered a nationalistic anthem to Palestinians as it originated there in the 1930s. Since then it has become a revolutionary anthem in the Middle East, with Iraq adopting it as their official anthem in 2004.”

She was also helpful in solving a pronunciation question. Throughout the production the Palestinian characters pronounced the place as “Rezah” at least it seemed to me. Then in a last scene Rami is at the border and American guards refer to the place as “Gaza.” Were they one and the same? Again Yara Shoufani is helpful: “I do know that Ghezah is the Arabic pronunciation of the word. The gh sound is an Arabic sound that does not exist in English and so it could perhaps sound like an R.” Again, a programme note explaining this would have been really helpful.

Playwright Sama Sabawi has provided precious little historical context in her play or in informative programme notes. It’s as if it’s expected that the audience would automatically know this information. Then it dawns on me. That’s the point and also the problem of Tales of a City by the Sea. It’s meant for an audience of Palestinian or at least people of Middle Eastern descent who would know about the historical, language and philosophical context. Those others in the audience who don’t know are out of luck or at least can try and rely on Google for information. This is an unfortunate decision.

She says in her programme note: “Through creating a glimpse into the beauty and hardship of those existing under Israeli military occupation in Gaza, I hope to re-spark this essential conversation with raise awareness to the ongoing trauma that Palestinians continue to endure.” One has to ask, ‘re-spark this essential conversation’ with whom? With the people who already know one side of the story?  That seems like talking to the converted. Or does it mean to spark a conversation with people in the audience who are excluded because of lack of context or language, who need and want to know the various sides of the story? If that is the case, then Sama Sahawi has to open up her play, provide context and more historical reference. Her play touches on the strong presence of Hamas as a governing body. That too must be expanded and given more prominence.

As it is Tales of a City by the Sea is a well intentioned play but terribly frustrating.

Comment. I can appreciate the good intentions of all those involved in mounting this endeavor. It was heartening to see so many of Middle Eastern descent at the performance I was at. But the experience for a person not versed in Arabic or the context of the thorny issues in Gaza is frustrating. I think the absence of these important components diminishes the play.

Presented by the Canadian Friends of Sabeel:

Opened: Dec. 6, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

Box Office: 416-504-7529.

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