This review of Mario Diament's Land Of Fire at Theater For The New City was written by Nickolaus Hines and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Land Of Fire
Written by Mario Diament
Directed by Moshe Yassur
Sets by Mark Marcante
Lighting by Gertjan Houben
Sound by Ellen Mandel
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Land Of Fire could be called unapologetic agitprop, but it's the type of politically motivated theater that doesn't dull the mind or break attention spans. It's not politically charged in the way that most Americans are used to. It's politically charged about a subject that most people know only from headlines on top of stories they didn't read - The Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The themes (no matter how far away the location of the action) are universal. The writing style of Mario Diament, an Argentinian-born Jew, is provocative. He is a leading South American playwright and journalist who lives in Florida where he teaches journalism at Florida International University. Land Of Fire is based on the real story of the 1972 attack on the El Al Israel Airlines plane by the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine.
As darkness envelopes the audience, the all too familiar sound of gunfire plays over speakers. A news broadcast of London at the time of the shooting is projected onto the back wall of the stage. A man in an orange jumpsuit (one of the jailed PLO attackers) and a woman with her hair pulled back into a tight bun (an Israeli stewardess who seeks dialogue with her attacker) sit across from each other when the lights come back on. It is character blocking that will become more than just familiar over the length of the show.
Land Of Fire runs at Theater For The New City in the East Village until January 3rd. Of all the off-Broadway plays to put on your calendar for the holiday season, this one won't inspire the spirit of giving. But it will make you question the issues of race relations, not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between each individual and the world.
Diament isn't subtle about his goal to make people question their own perspectives. The play has a clear controversial bias. It was easy to lose count of the comparisons made between the Nazi treatment of Jews and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
"What the Swatstika meant to you, the Star of David means to me," is just one of the many controversial lines.
There's no getting away from the passions of politics in today's society. In a nation where a vocal portion of the country is supporting presidential candidates threatening to force an entire segment of the population to move because they are Muslim, you can be sure that someone in the audience was going to find fault with Diament's writing. Even in a preview show for critics and family, I wasn't able to escape sitting in proximity to a man who thought passionately enough about the subject to vocally exhale and snort each time the idea of Israeli injustice toward Palestinians was brushed up against - and it would take pages of writing to go into detail about his vociferous speech on the topic during intermission. Needless to say, this is a play to make a person think, not a play to leave a person with happy feelings.
The self-aware political partisanship of Land Of Fire comes with its own set of problems aside from the inherently polarizing topic. The actors are competent, but the lines seem alternately over-practiced or under-emphasized. Dagmar Stansova, playing Yael, the woman who survived the El Al Airlines attack, is on stage in every scene of the show. Asking the most experienced actor to tackle such a subject of gravitas is a lot, but asking an actor to hold the attention of the audience with such heavy subject matter while being in every scene of the show is an almost impossible feat. Her counter Hassan el-Fawzi, played by Mihran Shlougian, is the Palestinian man responsible for the attack who is confronted by Stansova. Shlougian has arguably the strongest performance (at times), but his character has a very defined dual personality that rarely requires subtle acting.
The press release came with a three-and-a-half page explanation of the conflict to help the people reviewing the show with the background of the true story. I suggest looking deep into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before jumping into this one. The motivations behind each character and the facts dropped into the story are difficult to follow without knowing the extensive backstory of a conflict that dates back to the 1940s.
"People are more comfortable with hate," Shlougian's character says.
The majority of the play focuses on Shlougian and Stansova's characters, but the side characters are heavily relied upon to provide background and feelings. One of the most important to pay attention to - and one of the strongest performances - is by Marilyn Lucchi, who plays the mother of one of the women killed in the terrorist attack. Lucchi is the brief spot of balance in a show that leans toward the Palestinian viewpoint. Her restrained sentiment explains the feelings of an entire population in terms that even an outsider can understand. Other actors in this play include Scott Zimmerman, Naci Baybura, and David Mandelbaum.
Land Of Fire should not be taken lightly. Its message is important even though it is not always delivered in the most effective manner. The program includes the John Lennon quotation, "All we are saying is give peace a chance," and I suggest Land Of Fire should be given a chance as well. Just make sure you know your history first.
The play, also known as Tierra Del Fuego, had its world premiere in Stockholm (Sweden) in 2012, with subsequent productions in London, England (Calder Theatre), and Montevideo (Uruguay). It is now in its third sell-out season in Buenos Aires (Brazil), where it opened in 2013 earning many awards including Argentina's top playwriting prize. Tierra Del Fuego was translated from Spanish into English by Simone Zarmati Diament. Theater For The New City, in association with New Yiddish Rep, presents the United States premiere of Land Of Fire. For tickets, which are $18.00, call SmartTix at 212-868-4444, or visit www.smarttix.com For more information about the play and regarding New Yiddish Rep, go to www.newyiddishrep.org