by Moira Stone · April 26, 2014
Life during wartime is a rich dramatic subject. Human beings, after all, have the stubborn tendency to go on being human even in extremis, and existential threat can imbue even banalities with drama and poignancy. Holy Land is not explicitly set in the occupied Palestinian territories, or French-occupied Algeria, or rebel-held Homs (Playwright Mohamed Kacimi says little in his enigmatic note on the play’s setting, “A city under siege. (…) Neither the soldiers, nor the barbed wires, nor the war are visible to the naked eye.”), but the setting is clear enough - a people under siege are a people under siege. The politics in Holy Land don’t much matter.
Which would be fine, if the script brought a greater wisdom to this thorny and well-trod ground. That the hellish circumstances of war that can twist the human spirit into despair or rage or passivity is not news. What I look for from artists willing to tackle the subject is insight, illumination, discovery. Kacimi’s script failed me here; it was neither poetic howl nor kitchen sink drama, but some uneasy mix of both. Characters were stock – the pragmatic wife, the hotheaded young man, the conflicted soldier – who spoke dialogue that seemed rooted in quirk rather than lived experience. The actors were all committed, all game, all talented, but nonetheless seemed adrift, connected not to each other, giving line readings that must have sounded compelling in isolation but that fell flat as live performance. I longed for a greater sense of connection from the ensemble, and for director Tracy Cameron Francis to have guided them to a unified style and tone.
Accomplished technical work form the set, sound, lighting, and costume designers brought texture and specificity to the work, and was a real pleasure
Holy Land does, inevitably, explode into violence, though not in the way I feared in those first agonizing moments. The stranger with a flashlight is a soldier, the girl on the floor is all alone, but by then the worst has already been done, and the final image of annihilation registers not as catharsis, but manipulation.