“How is this my concern? I’m a spectator.”
Pulling a striking image from I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theatre, playwright Suvendrini Lena shapes Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry (translated by Fady Joudah) into meta-textual spectacle. Off to one side, plush theatre seats look onto a bombed-out courtyard—once a proper building, now reduced to gaping mortar. Rubble, presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Aluna Theatre, is aptly named; the stage is a bleak landscape of strewn cinder blocks and crumbling concrete.
Trevor Schwellnus’ scenery is imposing. The back wall feels especially treacherous—fragmented slabs towering precariously over the actors and first few rows of audience. As bombs explode with unnerving suddenness, the visceral impact is a pale, aesthetic suggestion of the lived reality in Gaza.
We meet a Palestinian family—Leila (Lara Arabian) and Majid (Sam Khalilieh) struggling to fashion an intimate and loving household amidst the constant threat of death and devastation; and their children, Mo (Yousef Kadoura) and Noora (Parya Heravi), trying to reconcile youthful ambition with besiegement. There is a charming, gently funny bit where director Beatriz Pizano gives us a theatrically inventive overhead view of the family sharing a bed one night—the actors leaned up against the back wall—where we glimpse the quiet maintainence of their humanity amidst chaos.
Another poignant glimpse into familiar domestic ritual is a beautiful scene where Majid surprises the family with fresh lemons. Leila, Mo and Noora sing while preparing them for preservation. Later, those fruits will re-appear, pickled in jars. They are, perhaps, a less impressive image than the massive projected moon that dominates the back wall in key scenes, but their mundanity is soothing and urgently poetic in this context.
Representing Darwish here is Roula Said’s The Poet. She’s a sardonic presence, overseeing this family’s plight and beckoning us in to acknowledge it. She maintains a certain aesthetic distance throughout, wrestling with text, with the artistic impulse and its fraught relationship to real life—specifically the horrors of war.
In Avideh Saadatpajough‘s ever-present video projections, Arabic text itself, reflected off disintegrating surfaces, accumulates gradually at the bottom of the wall. These words are part of the rubble, a whimsical echo of the physical debris that accumulates around this family.
There are times when the play’s dynamic theatricality flattens out into dry, stand-and-deliver segments. These moments are rare though. When Majid walks us through two thousand years of seige, the information is compelling, but the litany feels rather limp when compared to the impact of Pizano’s more innovative and immersive flourishes.
“You have 58 seconds to leave your home before an explosion. Run.”
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s distressing poem, Running Orders, is featured here as well. This wartime “courtesy call” is received by Leila early on. The text makes you question the objects you hold most essential to your identity. With death imminent in less than a minute, there isn’t time to salvage the civilized artifacts of your life. Who are you without the tokens of your lived experience?
The notion of being a spectator or a witness creeps into your experience of the performance. What variables inform this distinction—your own unique experience, your attitude, the specific quality of your investment? The dividing line seems fluid and amorphous yet examining it is necessary.
“No spectators at chasm’s door… no one is neutral here.”
Rubble asks us to contemplate average people caught up in harrowing circumstances. The defining aspect of my experience of the show—for many others too, I imagine—is a sense of distance. I’ll most likely never experience the sort of atrocity represented here—life in Gaza. I have the good fortune of not being at chasm’s door, yet I must accept that it is, essentially, a real place; and that the capacity of human experience is far more extreme and expansive than I will ever fully know first-hand, but only in the abstract, as a spectator.