By Mario Diament; Directed by Moshe Yassur
Translated from Spanish by Simone Zarmati Diament
Produced in association with New Yiddish Rep
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 1.3.15
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
by Eleanor J. Bader on 12.20.15
BOTTOM LINE: A politically explosive, if didactic, look at the animosity between Israelis and Palestinians that focuses on one act of terrorism and its long-term impact on two individuals.
Land of Fire has its roots in an actual terrorist attack on an El Al Airline crew that took place in 1978. Nonetheless, Argentinian playwright Mario Diament’s two-act drama is a work of fiction. In it, the seemingly intractable problems of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence are plumbed and the so-called victim and victimizer roles are interrogated.
In an author’s statement, Diament explains the dilemma he is attempting to explicate: “On the one hand, here’s a people that after two millennia of exodus, persecution, humiliation, and slaughter, finally settles on their ancestral land, but in doing so, displaces the local population which is in turn subjected to conditions that resemble those that caused its suffering. The oppressed becomes the oppressor.”
In the particular scenario depicted in Land of Fire, Yael (played by a visibly tormented Dagmar Stansova) confronts Hassan (played with a mix of fury and contrition by the excellent Mihran Shlougian) about his role in an attack that wounded her and killed her co-worker. It’s now 22 years later, and both Yael and Hassan are middle-aged.
Yael confesses that she is unsure of her motivation in seeking to understand the still-imprisoned Hassan. Nonetheless, she feels driven to meet him. Although she is a peace activist in Israel, she wonders if she can forgive her attacker, or if that should even be her goal. For his part, Hassan repeatedly stresses that he is a changed man who will never again harm innocent civilians. At the same time, he stresses the indignities that Palestinians continue to live with and laments the check-points and militarization of everyday life. In a heated exchange, his rage comes to the fore: “To change does not mean to forget. I will never kill anyone again but don’t expect me to call you sister. The peace you talk of is capitulation. The peace we talk about is justice.”
As Hassan tells Yael his family’s story—starting with their forced removal from the land and subsequent settlement in a fetid, overcrowded refugee camp—the audience is made privy to a riveting history. Later, when Yael asks her father (David Mandelbaum) about his role in the founding of Israel, the story comes full circle to include a horrific recitation of rationalized atrocities that leaves Yael in deep pain and abject sorrow.
As is obvious, it’s heavy material.
Land of Fire focuses on what it means to forgive, but while Hassan is the play’s moral compass, the frame is nonetheless more heavily weighted toward the victim, Yael, than the victimizer. In addition, much of the dialogue sounds unnatural, especially between Yael and her husband (Scott Zimmerman) and their interactions seem more like an exchange of speeches than actual conversations, although this could be due to the play's translation from Spanish. Scenes with Hassan’s attorney ( Naci Baybura) and the grieving mother of Yael’s murdered colleague (Marilyn Lucchi) are extraneous and add little to the production. Still, thanks to a spare, never-changing set designed by Mark Marcante that simply project bars on a back wall to indicate Yael’s movement between her home and the jail, even these distractions do little to deflect attention from the intense conflict between the two protagonists.
It’s poignant and powerful, if heavy-handed, and hammers home an important reminder about political domination. As Diament concludes, “there is no good occupation.” He further notes that he imagined Land of Fire as a plea for peace and while he concedes that individual gestures are insufficient to promote societal change, he argues that keeping silent is even less productive. Toward the end of the play, Yael underscores this message and simultaneously offers a small inkling of hope, telling Hassan that, “I think if we keep talking, we will understand each other one day. But if we keep killing each other, there won’t be anyone left to listen.”
It’s a sober assessment but it also asks a pointed question: Is there any other way to stop the inequities that have ruled the region for nearly 70 years?
(Land of Fire/Tierra del Fuego plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, through January 3, 2016. The show runs 1 hour 50 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 and 8. No performance at 8 on January 3rd. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444.)
Land of Fire is written by Mario Diament, translated by Simone Zarmati Diament, and directed by Moshe Yassur. It is produced in association with New Yiddish Rep. Set Design by Mark Marcante. Lighting Design by Alexander Bartenieff. Sound Design and Compsed by Ellen Mandel. Costume Coordinator is Gina Healy. Dramaturg/Program Editor is Beate Hein Bennett, Ph.D. Production Stage Manager is Mark Brystowski.
The cast features Dagmar Stansova, Mirhan Shlougian, Scott Zimmerman, Naci Baybura, Marilyn Lucchi, and David Mandelbaum.