Paradise

By - Feb 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff

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As complicated and as brutal as things have been in the West Bank over the years, it seems incredibly mundane to mention that people actually live there. This fact is important though, because without it, none of the bloodshed or brutality that’s gone on over the course of the past several decades makes the slightest bit of sense. Shedding light on the human element of the West Bank conflict, playwright Glyn O’Malley’s controversial Paradise is a very human drama about two girls living on the opposite sides of a river while dealing with the problems that go along with the distance that separates them. Next Act continues its season with a thoughtful production of O’Malley’s very human political drama.

Leah Dutchin plays a 17-year-old Palestinian girl named Fatima living in a refugee camp with her family. She’s irrepressibly human in a place that threatens to tarnish that humanity with duty that is bound to history. Dutchin talks with friend and relative Omar (Joseph Fernandez), a boy who dreams of getting out of the West Bank and into a decent college on a soccer scholarship. Her human side comes out in the dialogues with Omar. There is something other than basic humanity in her interactions with a darker figure known as Bassam (Luke Leonhardt). Leaonhardt cuts a particularly memorable performance out of relatively little stage time. When a cell phone goes off in the audience at the opening of the play, it’s his. Placing a character like Bassam in the audience at the beginning of the play is an intriguing way of bringing the reality of the drama into the audience before the story starts. It’s a bit unnerving considering the last conversation he has with Fatima. Bassam instructs Fatima in something chillingly foreign to the minds of most Americans. It’s a simple moment, unclouded as it is by the complexity of human pretense, but Dutchin and Loenhardt fashion fascinating tension out of the simplicity.

On the other side of the river, Sarah (Emily Trask) lives with her mother (Mary MacDonald Kerr) in a Jewish Israeli settlement. It’s an entirely different kind of life for Sarah than it is for Fatima, but they both share themes of trying to grow up human in a world shaped by a history that goes back to a time long before either were born. Sarah’s mother has a sense of belonging in the West Bank that Sarah lacks. It’s an interesting interaction between Trask and Kerr. Aside from staged internal monologues, we only ever see Sarah interacting with her mother, which makes for a particularly focused dramatic energy. Trask has a sophisticated stage presence that seems at odds with the youthful inexperience of the character she’s playing here, but measured against someone who has been performing for as long as Kerr, the illusion is complete. For her part, Kerr shows the kind of textured performance that has made her such a pleasant and entertaining addition to Milwaukee stages for the past 11 years. Less than a month after Paradise closes, Kerr will appear a little further south in the theater district in String Of Pearls with Renaissance Theaterworks in March.

As interesting as everything is in Paradise, scenes seem stretched just a few lines too long. It’s as though O’Malley stopped just a few words short of trying to over explain what was going on in each scene. It’s not enough to detract from the overall production, but it leaves one with the odd feeling that a palpably better story would’ve been only three or four minutes shorter. VS

Next Act Theatre’s production of Paradise runs now through February 25th, 2007. Tickets range in price and can be purchased in advance by calling the ticket office at 414-278-0765 or online at www.nextact.org.

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