Stav Palti Negev has already proven that she could make a mesmerizing drama out of downers, those dreary topics that most of us wish not to think about.
In her play Salim Salim, which won the best play award, and the best actor award in the Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre 2014, she successfully conveyed the complexity of the Palestinians and Israeli conflict through engaging and sympathetic human beings.
And now in her play Somewhere, playing in the Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli (directed by Hisham Sleiman) she goes even further. Here too she focuses on those that Western society prefers to ignore, to leave outside, or lock behind closed doors. There there are 4 actors in the play who perform one-on-one to 4 spectators in 4 rooms, each actor tells a story of a different displacement
The description of the play doesn’t even begin to disclose what is waiting for the spectators behind the curtain of each room.
“A play built around five stories of refugees from different times and countries. This is “one-on-one” theatre: each story is a monodrama, acted each time for an audience of one. The spectator is invited to enter the refugees’ world, to meet them personally, and to become part of their story.”
The play consists of four acts, played simultaneously, at four different rooms, thus there is no formal beginning and ending. Each act focuses on a personal/collective story of a refugee: A Sudanese who escaped the atrocities in Darfur only to be put in jail in Israel. An Iraqi that together with his family had escaped to Syria and then again, after the loss of two of his children, fled with his wife and their little daughter in a small boat to Europe. An Egyptian Jewish singer who realized that she was no longer welcome in her homeland and had to leave for Israel where she spent the next 30 years cleaning houses, and a Palestinian man who defines himself as a son and a grandson of a refugee a victim of the Nakba.
The stage directions, which are given to the spectators/participants, give the play its formal structure. In the beginning, before entering the ancient hall in the castle of Acre, the audience was given specific instructions on how to conduct ourselves during the play. Those instructions were technical and impersonal almost military: “walk to the left, stand in front the door, you may enter etc.” These directions were repeated in the beginning, after each act, and at the ending that for each of the spectator occurred at a different station.
The impersonal stage directions serve also to give the spectator a taste of what is continuously done to the refugees, and the attempt to dehumanize them. For a short time we were forced to obey arbitrary commands.
Inside the rooms, being alone with the actor/refugee felt deeply uncomfortable, here I no longer could pretend that I hear no evil, see no evil, or speak no evil. I was there facing a refugee in the role of the accused. I was the one who took his home, didn’t let him in into mine and ignored his/her pleas.
But even when I felt attacked Somewhere never ceased to be a good theater, thanks to the the highly stylized acting, the setting, and the personal yet collective text which was familiar and at at the same time new and enigmatic as it was performed by the refugees/actors.
The choice of having four different stations/rooms was a tribute to a traditional theatrical form, the medieval pageant. It was effective and ironically grounded the burning issue of displacement in a long tradition of western culture. Moreover, as the spectators move from stage to stage in a cycle, the play quietly gained another medievalist meaning about the insignificance of human life.
It was upsetting yet exciting to watch from a close distance another human being and to listen to a the story of terrible injustice and suffering. While sitting in the different rooms I suddenly became convinced that this is a most effective way to deal with difficult issues and to bring change in people’s conscience. Moreover, it became clear to me that a play like Somewhere is exactly what real theater is all about: dealing with human tragedy in an artistic and dramatic way
Acre festival should be commended for including Somewhere in its repertoire. It shows that the Festival has a genuine appreciation and love of art, and that it understands the mission of theater in today’s world .