by Byron Woods
There’s minimalism. There’s out-and-out starkness. And then—unfortunately—there’s the form of aesthetic anorexia that director Tea Alagic and actor Alice Turner have come up with in this production of MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE.
Throughout theatrical history, more than one director has wisely advised an actor facing an emotionally daunting text to “let the words do the work.” Generally, that means an actor should do less with a text to achieve more; gauging the intrinsic impact the words already have so as not oversell the dialogue.
But in this “Wait Till You See This” second-stage production at Burning Coal Theatre, the words of activist Rachel Corrie are called upon to do a number of things that we normally expect from a production’s director and actor instead.
Things like effectively represent transitions between scenes, subjects, places and times, for example. Or indicate at least some of the changes a central character might go through between the age of 12 and, say, becoming a junior in college. Or relive, embody, visualize and relate a character’s emotions and experiences—instead of merely reporting them.
But on Friday night, Alagic and Turner basically didn’t bother much with the first two items in the list above—and only belatedly got around to the third—in a production in which a “stripped down” aesthetic has too frequently been taken straight to the bone.
After omitting the first two pages of the Theatre Communication Guild's 2006 version of the script—presumably with permission?—it appears that Alagic directs Turner to transition Corrie from the fifth grade to age 22. With next to no substantive change in Turner’s voice, physicality or character.
This precedes subsequent monologues that quickly take on the feel of a lecture, not a conversation. Occasionally, we catch glimpses of a certain adolescent charm when Rachel closes a fantasy about putting the president in a collar—and on a very tight leash—with a sudden shift of mental gears, or voices her desire to travel to Gaza with the same “I need to go” that a teenager might use to wheedle permission to see a concert or go on a road trip.
But by the sixth page of the script my notes frankly describe how bored I was with the overall flatness—and mostly unchanged reportage, no matter what the topic—of Corrie’s discourse, which exposed a major problem with the direction and acting in this production. Under Alagic’s direction, Corrie’s character tells us—much more frequently than she shows us—emotional responses such as how nervous she reportedly was at Israeli customs. Actor and director give varying sequences (emails and phone calls home, accounts of activism, internal reflections) insufficient emotional differentiation and delineation. All begin to take on the gray sameness of designer Joe Tilford’s surroundings (about which, more in a moment).
As her character approaches her death, Turner is gradually allowed to register increasingly significant emotional responses on stage. A crisis of faith, in which Corrie reaches out to her mother when she’s no longer certain if she believes in the intrinsic goodness of people, is emotionally affecting. Her nightmares, as the violence she’s surrounded by begins to take its toll, are equally so.
The frequently empty calories of Corrie’s vague opening sociopolitical stances are thankfully replaced toward the end by pointed, specific and passionate critiques of political policies that she concludes are calculated to make life impossible for the people of the Palestinian territories.
These are welcome developments. But they arrive far too late in this production.
Designer Joe Tilford’s striking set design is undeniably a work of visual art—one which should be fully documented before the production concludes Sunday. The Murphey School stage is painted in single broad strip of battleship gray, which begins at the edge of the audience before climbing up the stage's back wall. Yellow and black-striped safety tape establishes a perimeter at the corners of the stage, and around the edges of a battleship-gray platform which rises from the center of the stage. Above the platform hangs a bank of four generic fluorescent office fixtures, whose unfiltered, unflattering light is the primary source of illumination.
Behind these, a large, official-looking yellow sign stretches across stage between two pipes extending from the floor to the ceiling. On it, stencil letters in all caps, several feet high, spell out the words of a warning. It reads: DO NOT PRETEND THIS DID NOT HAPPEN.
As you can imagine, the impact of the sign and set fills the room. By regrettable contrast, for the most part, far too much of Alagic and Turner’s interpretation of Rachel Corrie stays well behind the yellow lines.
These results would be unfortunate for any production. They are particularly tragic for such a memento mori as this—one which attempts to raise the visibility of a population, as Corrie’s mother correctly notes, that has remained largely invisible to Americans. Perhaps the headlines from the Palestinian territories this week aren’t bringing us a part of the news that Rachel Corrie witnessed firsthand before her death in 2003. But aren’t they showing us what those conditions and decisions then have inexorably lead to?
It’s fully understandable that a company with discretion, taste and conscience would want to avoid cheapening Corrie’s experiences with theatrical histrionics. Unfortunately, in making a different error, this production leaves its subject’s character—and spirit—underdeveloped for too long.