It's All Relative 

Traveling Jewish Theatre melds tragedy and comedy.

No one knew exactly what would come of Traveling Jewish Theatre's long-awaited Middle East Project, a piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict created in collaboration with international artists, but it was a fair bet it wouldn't be all bunnies and daffodils. That's evident from the very first moment of Blood Relative, in which half-Arab, half-Israeli Ibi (similarly Palestinian-Israeli guest artist Ibrahim Miari) staggers in with a bandaged nose and a bloodied shirt and sets about upturning his apartment in impotent rage.

From that point on, we're guests in Ibi's apartment -- a splendid set of stone-walled spareness by Giulio Cesare Perrone evocatively lit by David Robertson -- as well as in his head, as he stubbornly refuses to be drawn out of either one. We go back to his childhood in a marvelous scene in which an innocent game of hopscotch accompanied by haunting songs in Arabic and Hebrew turns nasty when his playmates taunt him for being a dirty Arab, and then for being a dirty Jew. "I'm in the middle; you can't touch me," Ibi says as part of the game, and the rest of the play centers on forces from both sides trying to drag him from the middle to one side or the other. When we do find out what happened to make him hole up in his apartment for weeks on end, it's strikingly similar to the equal-opportunity playground cruelty, only much worse. The entire audience stops breathing, except for scattered gasps.

Try as Ibi might to shut out the world, the world inevitably comes to him. He has his Uncle David crashing on his floor, the drugged-out shell of an Israeli army vet played by Corey Fischer as a tattered fool whose demons caught up with him so long ago that he wouldn't know what to do without them. Every Thursday he has to chase away a spunky housekeeper (Israeli actress Meirav Kupperberg), who keeps coming back, chipper and chatty as ever. Composer Georges Lammam periodically walks through fiddling mournfully or soberly plucking an oud, adding a comforting human resonance with his presence as well as his music; it's no accident that some of the most terrible things in the play happen in dead silence.

Ibi is haunted by the specters of grandparents from both sides of his heritage, staring at him through the diaphanous white curtains that cover opposite doorways. Nora El Samahy is formidable and captivatingly self-assured as his Palestinian grandmother, who quizzes him on the catechism of how sweet life was in their family home before they were driven from it, and Eric Rhys Miller is gently sympathetic as his grandfather, making us believe he has the best of intentions in trying to draw Ibi (whom he calls Avi) squarely toward his Jewish mother's tradition. "You shouldn't have to live like that, with a war within you," he says. In one very effective scene, a heated debate about the relative rights and grievances of Jews and Arabs becomes a forceful waltz between the two grandparents, though it then descends into a grotesque slo-mo fight sequence that is way over the top to establish it as Ibi's nightmare.

Some of the other transitions are equally rough, and the ending is a bit abstruse, but the scenes they bracket don't just work, they work wonders. At one point, Ibi's home is invaded by a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group consisting of a smarmy moderator (Fischer), a nerdy American Zionist (Miller), a gruff Arab activist (El Samahy) reciting poetry about her people's pain, and an Israeli woman (Kupperberg) so hilariously apologetic that it's all anyone can do to keep her from clinging to the Palestinian panelist's ankles. It's this delicate balance between rib-tickling satire and gut-punching satire that's most impressive -- that the comedy proves as thought-provoking as the tragedy. Like Ibi himself, Blood Relative finds its center in being both/and rather than either/or.


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