Holy Wars

With The Human Scale, foreign correspondent Lawrence Wright has transformed his 12,000-word story entitled “Captives: What really happened during the Israeli attacks” about the Gaza Strip from the November 9, 2009 issue of The New Yorker into a one-man play. Informative, provocative, yet dramatically inert, audiences should expect more lecture than theater with this nonetheless dazzling multimedia presentation. With a gorgeous video design by Aaron Harrow as his backdrop, Wright leads the audience through the history and ongoing impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians. Using the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still in Hamas custody, as its backbone, The Human Scale, offers an unsparing look at a contentious issue where both sides take the moral high ground and feel they are doing the right thing.

Much like Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which was turned into the play My Trip to Al-Qaeda (and recently an HBO Documentary directed by Alex Gibney) and even Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, The Human Scale is an amalgam of video, images, interviews, and other sources. Some graphic footage of bloodied bodies produced gasps from the audience. A Palestinian children’s show in which a cartoon-like character is stabbed to death by a Jew was a particularly disturbing example of how both sides dehumanize and demonize the other.

But as directed by The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, there is little drama in the way Wright tells the story. His fairness and impartiality somehow drain the life out of what he is presenting. He becomes instead a sort of talking head or narrator, like a 60 Minutes anchor desperately trying to keep his bias and emotions at bay.

What I found most problematic about the piece was the lack of Wright’s own response to what is going on around him. The only personal glimpse the audience gets is when he reenacts fainting from dehydration caused by food poisoning while interviewing members of Hamas. In addition, Wright’s way of showing leather-bound tomes and official-looking binders does not lend as much authority to his lecture as he might want. As the names, places, and dates add up, audience members may find themselves in a fog of information that is as confusing as the disinformation Wright is attempting to admonish. The addition of dramaturgical materials such as a Gaza Strip timeline and map in the program are certainly helpful to those who do not know a whole lot about this ongoing conflict, but these are simply not enough to wrap one’s head around such a complex issue without substantial prior knowledge.

Co-produced by The Public Theater and 3LD Art & Technology Center, this show may bring to mind the controversial play My Name Is Rachel Corrie about the American activist crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, but it reminded me more of Masked by Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor, about three Palestinian brothers who struggle with ideological and personal conflicts about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Human Scale shares with that drama a lack of overt moral judgment or political polemics, although The Human Scale seems to conclude that both Hamas and the Israeli government committed war crimes in the Gaza war, which is also the main conclusion of the controversial Goldstone Report which Wright cites in the show.

In a recent interview in the weblog The Gothamist, Wright said he hoped that they could take the play to Israel, Gaza, and Palestine for audiences on both sides of the issue. Another article in The Jewish Week suggested that portions of the play could be rewritten during the show’s run depending on current political developments, making The Human Scale a timely addition to the annals of newspaper theater. It is certainly a provocative piece that will get audiences talking. But the 90-minute show is really more like a glorified PowerPoint presentation than theater in the truest sense.

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