Costa Mesa, CA—–Over the years, many have questioned how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen or better yet, where was He/She during the Holocaust? At which point God answers, I was there where were you?
That same question could have been asked in Theresa Rebeck’s “Zealot” now making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre through Nov. 16th as her story unfolds in the beautifully appointed (set by Ralph Funicello) office of the British Consulate in Saudi Arabia. In the background outside the holiday of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims which most be carried out at least once in a lifetime, is in progress.
Juxtaposed with the goings on outside as masses of pilgrims crush against each other to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, against the calmness of the British consul’s office is almost unsettling. The U.S. undersecretary of state Ann Hadad (Charlayne Woodward) is ushered in to the consul’s office to await the arrival its occupant, Edgar Featherstone (Alan Smyth) where she snoops around, (trying to get s leg up?) until she hears him enter.
After some awkward back and fourth about Ms. Hadad’s visit and some clumsy ‘getting to know you and what are you really doing in my office’, the off again/ on again diplomatic banter is interrupted first by several phone calls, then a revelation that something is rotten in Mecca, then to the appearance of a Muslim cleric, Usama (Demosthenes Chrysan) in a frazzled state of incoherent-ness, to the almost saintly appearance of Marina Zayeh (Nikki Massoud) a young Iranian girl (the zealot as Usama calls her) seeking asylum.
“I must appeal to you for sanctity”, “I was told the Americans must grant you immunity. It is their law, the laws of freedom”. “In America there is hope”. “Your American declaration of Independence is known to people everywhere”.
She is in fact there to surrender herself to America. Her crime? She and hundreds of young women of like mind staged a demonstration by removing their head coverings (hijab), “exposed themselves creating chaos”. According to Usama it started as a protest and ended in a riot. “They came from many different countries, it’s not clear …they don’t know if they arrived separately or as a group…they exposed themselves in the holiest place in Islam…”
From the outrageous accusations coming from Usama to the almost ethereal yet defiant presence of Maria (Allah speaks to her) to the quasi-political dickering between Ann and Edgar things go from bad to worse to improbable and if it’s possible, unconscionable behavior. And yet they all have a point of view with which to be reckoned.
What follows is a diplomatic game of four square. Watching the ball bounce from side to side and square to square requires a referee. One might have helped at some point, but as of now our diplomatic savoir-faire hasn’t been that stellar and the questions about human rights are usually confined to Asia not the Middle East.
It’s easy for an outsider to look in and be critical of another countries mores and values but when pitted against our own, and compared to our own inconsistencies in values, (especially in our now almost hostile environment) ours aren’t all that wonderful after all. Edgar points this out to Ann in one of their give and take volleys.
Hiding under the banner of freedom, women still get the short shrift in wages, control of their own bodies, and job opportunities to mention a few that are blatantly visible. But rules are rules and man-made ones in the guise of religion are the most dangerous and difficult to change particularly in male dominated societies. Unfortunately, for Marina there was/is no happy ending.
Awakening to that awareness on the part of the audience (read men) has to be the fallout. At the time of my watching, I was as incensed when my cynicism kicked in by the attitudes of each diplomat and their concerns, more for themselves and possibly at the way the two countries would be judged rather than the girls safety, as I was at the outrage and utmost dictatorial manner of Usama.
On the other hand, as revelations about Marina began to get pared back by more forthcoming information, even her account of the riots became dubious. In the final analysis, Massoud’s Marina, while making her case, and well, leaves us feeling a little uncomfortable with her absolute convictions about her conversations with Allah.
Then there is Ann. Her role as the visiting diplomat is rather wishy/washy. The effect she has on the final outcome, while prudent, needs to be subjected to more careful scrutiny and given more depth to her character. Simple outrage won’t do! Ms Woodard manages to be firm up to a point and that fizzles over time. She never convinces. Looking stunning and relaxed in Alex Jeager’s fashionable design of blue suit and walking pumps, she does her best with what she has but her character requires more than just righteous indignation. She needs to take action!
Coming on like gangbusters, Smyth’s Edgar nearly steals the show. He is witty and colorful and with the majority of lines perfectly suited to his position as a diplomat and his strong stage presence, Smyth in the person of Edgar acts as I would have expected one in his position to act/react; haughty, full of himself and smugly funny.
Demosthenes’ strong and unwavering Usama makes his own points regarding his countries laws, and he is also scores his own points. His presence is almost larger than life and his point of view as a representative of the moral and religious high grounds are well taken. That doesn’t mean I agree.
Artistic director Marc Masterson has managed to create as much tension throughout in spite of all the character flaws. Each is able to stand ground even under pressure. Masterson, who is no stranger to Ms. Rebeck, has directed and produced her works since 2003 when he produced another world premiere, “Ominum Gatherum” as part of the Humana Festival of New York and he premiered “The Scene” (2006 Humana) and “Bad Dates” during Actors Theatre’s 2005-06 season. “Zealot” is his fifth.
Pulitzer prize winning playwright Theresa Rebeck has opened the proverbial floodgates raising questions with regard to religious freedom, human rights and equal rights. As a woman and one who is vocal in her demands for equality, especially as this play unfolds and both diplomats taking ‘the road so oft taken’, she seems to be asking, “Where were you when they took Marina away, when they took away a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, when it was decided that women should not get equal pay for equal work, or when it was a woman’s fault that she was raped?”
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Nov. 16th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $22.00
Venue: Segerstrom Stage