Review by Edmond Mallin
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity continues to present plays that raise awareness about global issues. I saw a thought-provoking performance of “Anne Frank In The Gaza Strip” by Monica Bauer, directed by Shaun Peknic.
This production is in support of Americans for Peace Now, an organization that calls for accountability in the Middle East peace process.
The play delivers some thoughtful farce which people of all political affiliations can enjoy. As the story begins, the song “Over the Rainbow” is playing. There is a main character named Dorothy. She wears red shoes. There are some gay secret agents who are in love with each other. Etc.
I think at this point in time farce is an important way to approach thoughts of peace in the Middle East. Scores of Israeli films and the amazing television program “Arab Labor” make it clear that quite a lot of Israelis want peace, despite politicians who build settlements. On the other hand, it has been a farcical year for the Palestinian cause. Mahmoud Abbas asked Great Britain to act like the 100 year-old Balfour Declaration never happened. Certain Movement for Black Lives enthusiasts siding with Palestine fell into the black hole of calling Israel an apartheid state (yes, they were referring to a country where an Ethiopian immigrant won the Miss Israel pageant in 2013). And it’s been 50 years since Israel defended itself against joint Egyptian and Jordanian hostility, much to the chagrin of Soviet sympathizers. Even so, there are reasons that a play such as this one is needed right now. Could it be that there are consequences to speaking up about these issues? Might one lose one’s job or be hounded by bigoted bigwigs?
We are in the office of Headmaster Randall (the flamboyant David M. Farrington) at an elite private high school in Connecticut. Newbie drama teacher Dorothy (the passionate Lauren D. Salvo) is in trouble for casting a young Muslim student, Majidah (the earnest Isra Elsalihie) as famed Jewish World War II icon Anne Frank. Dorothy is half-Jewish (from her mother, the half that counts) and her grandmother learned Dutch for her academic pursuits regarding Anne Frank. Randall and his faithful assistant Darrell (the look-before-you-leap Bruce Jones) are under fire from parents and board members who, in the paranoid world of the play, could not imagine Dorothy’s non-traditional casting. One such board member is a wolfish lawyer named Epstein, apparently a friend of so-called President Trump, who derides the casting of a Muslim girl as “Anne Frank in the Gaza Strip”. Another visitor to Randall’s office is the play’s stage manager, Jonathan (the heroic Andrew Dahreddine) who reasons that, since he is the only one who knows the lines, he should play Anne, in drag. Another visitor is debate team teacher Ms. Levine (the fixated Becca Lish), who would be happy to take over the school play and do something popular, like Neil Simon. (There is even reference to a real-sounding regional theater called “Theater for Jews and Friends”; in this farce-world, Jews are a bunch of belligerent Philistines.) When Majidah herself enters Randall’s office, the administration has offered Dorothy the privilege of keeping her job as long as she makes some edits to the show. Randall has already warned Dorothy not to expect a Gay-Jewish alliance, even in Connecticut: “This isn’t Stonewall. We’re not in this together.” Darrell is in the process of taking the school’s drama trophies off the shelf to show everyone, when he falls and knocks Dorothy unconscious.
And so we find ourselves in another story, in Israel, featuring the same performers in different roles. Randall is now Reuben and Darell is now Daniel. They are remarkably gay agents of the “Shin Bet” (Acronym for the Israel Security Agency), and they have feelings for each other. Orders come through for them to kill a dangerous young girl who has found her way into the wrong place. The girl is Mary (Majidah from before), a Christian Palestinian whose family has been killed during an attack on terrorists. Reuben and Daniel, aware that every Marriott they enter has been bugged by various nations’ spies, seek to move Mary and themselves to a place of safety. They also encounter international woman of mystery Dorothy, who confirms that Mary speaks in Dutch in her dreams, as the girl thinks she is Anne Frank. Leslie is a child psychologist. The good guys determine to disobey orders and defect to Canada, but then they must take a break because they are in fact rehearsing a play written by Dorothy which was designed to please “the kind of Jews” who patronize “Theater For Jews and Friends”. Needless to say, the unseen presence of the lawyer Epstein is felt in a long list of proposed edits. Epstein likes Broadway queer melodrama such as “Kinky Boots” but could not imagine gay Israeli secret agents. (In this farce-world, Jews are hypocrites.) The band of performers are next seen in a much more traditional story. Reuben and Daniel are now as macho as they can be, and only express their affection for each other in code. Anne is played by bearded Stage Manager Jonathan in an unflattering way. As this version deviates from Dorothy’s desires, she eventually wakes up on the floor of the Headmaster’s office, with some difficult choices to make.
In these times, we should all evaluate our political alliances. Perhaps I live in a New York bubble, but being American doesn’t necessarily make me love Trump. Nor does being Israeli make one love Prime Minister Netanyahu. It may be worth checking out the aforementioned Americans for Peace Now, as well as other organizations that seek to curtail whoever’s funding Hamas. The show is replete with stereotypical jokes about Jews looking for a more “fair and balanced” Middle East…and I agree it must be done.
As I hinted above, perhaps there are paranoid people out there. The Artistic Director of a prominent American Jewish theater may have been fired due to a dispute about politics in plays. * (see link below)
That would be a sad situation indeed. Theater should be a place for all kinds of off-the-wall stories. Just look at all the plays that were written about the I.R.A. and how much difference they eventually made in this world. Director Shaun Peknic has brought us a multi-splendored thing in the guise of a play within a play within a play. Debbi Hobson’s costumes make the drama of semi-incognito secret agents and a cross-dressing Stage Manager come alive. Raye Levine’s scene design brings us inside many Mariotts and theatrical settings.