Thought Provoking

The Mecca Tales at the Sheen Center

This review of The Mecca Tales at The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Mecca Tales
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kareem Fahmy
Set Design by David Esler
Costume Design by Teresa Snider-Stein
Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana
Sound Design by Fan Zhang
Technical Direction by Anthony Ross
Stage Managed by Keri Landeiro
Choreography by Theara J. Ward
The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 10/29/17

The Mecca Tales shares the five very divergent, diverse, and humanizing perspectives of unique, but representative Muslim women participating in a Hajj Pilgrimage. While the tensions among them rise and each woman came to this holy journey for a significant and particular purpose, nothing was beyond normality. These were five very normal stories of five very normal women from around the world who just happened to be Muslim. I think that was largely the point of the entire project: to show people that Muslims are just people too. What was nicer about the play was that it was relatable and entertaining to watch. Yes, there were some moments when the actors were limited by the boundaries of unrealistic or uncreative dialogue. Regardless, they were thoroughly convincing to the point that I believed all the actors must be doing this play out of a religious desire to absolve the religion of the misconceptions of secular evil. It turns out only one of the cast members was actually Muslim or of Islamic origin. Kudos to everyone for being a serious actor and acting the part.

The five women included Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), the group's New York-based organizer and guide; Maya (Mariam Habib), a refugee from an undisclosed Middle Eastern country; Malika (Jade Radford), a medical student from a single-parent household; Alma (Cynthia Bastidas), a woman from Argentina whose husband is British; and Bina (Gulshan Mia), a well-off Pakistani housewife married to a successful neurosurgeon. Each of these women has their own reasons for having decided to join this travel group, which the audience learns about through flashbacks. They all hope to return "purified" from this "pilgrimage" and while they are no doubt devout Muslims making the journey for religious reasons, it doesn't prevent them from sporting "2017 Pilgrimage Tote Bags." From being turned away from their pre-paid tents by Saudi Arabian authorities to the final gesture of having a believer cut a lock of their hair and burying it in the sand, The Mecca Talesprojects an air of authenticity as the group struggles with emotional issues of grave concern to them.

Great talk back after the show!

Great talk back after the show!

The Hajj Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is meant to be performed once in the life of every Muslim. Every year, millions make the annual trek to see Mecca, which can be physically and financially demanding. Obscurity about the event and the required religious elements exists only because the specifics of the significant aspects of the trip are rarely highlighted in a brief summary of Islam. The Mecca Tales does a good job of describing or at least highlighting the various religious traditions that are meant to be completed while undertaking the Hajj. The actresses also emphasized that there should be both a purpose for undertaking the Hajj as well as a focus on the purity of one's intentions and faith for it to be "accepted."

The main dramatic arch of the play focuses on the acceptance of the ladies' Hajj. Their guide on the trip, Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks) is tasked with helping the women find their way while undertaking her own Hajj for the 10th time. While the women work through their various challenges, it becomes clear that Grace has some unfinished business on the Hajj. Her own business is probably the most "painful" given that it is the main one that dwells on death. Still, while most of the women's experiences are not excruciatingly painful, they are still important life challenges. Things such as never kissing a truly significant loved one or whether life will go on if one accepts her husband's divorce proposal are for some characters as serious as losing one's lover after the end of a three-hour armistice.

Grace, on the other hand, never finished her first Hajj, because she lost her son on the trip. He died giving her a message to carry on, and it took the other women on this particular trip to make her realize that she could set aside those demons of the past by completing the pilgrimage. If nothing else, it was a touching moment. The cast had me convinced that they were serious and devout Muslims, but the definitive best performance was put in by Gulshan Mia as Bina. She played a tough character very well and brought a lot of needed energy to the early scenes.

In the end, I would hope that this play continues to be performed. I think even as a piece of contemporary women's fiction, it provides a platform for engaging conversations as exemplified by the discussion panel afterward.  Otherwise, it is a very easy way to learn just that little bit more about Islam. The Sheen Center is great at consistently bringing together solid performance pieces. The set and costume designs for this play were phenomenal. Keep on the lookout for more information about The Mecca Tales.

A Toy Gun at Teatro Circulo

This review of Tamar Bartaia's A Toy Gun at Teatro Circulo was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

A Toy Gun
Written by Tamar Bartaia
Directed by Becky Baumwoll
Translated by Donald Rayfield
Teatro Circulo
64 East 4th Street
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 7/29/17

A Toy Gun, a play by Tamar Bartaia, is part of the Georgian-American Theatrical Feast, a festival of new works written by playwrights from the Republic of Georgia. It begins in a small Georgian town but the country's setting and the sequence of events that affect it during the lifetimes of our two main characters, Medea (Tara Giordano) and Yoram (Luke Younger) are very similar to what is happening elsewhere in the world. The writer and actors successfully present universal themes that resonate beyond the circumstances of any one country. One of the main plot points is how the two characters react to current events in their home country from their changing statures. Their perceptions of the world and of each other change during the course of their lives. A toy gun connects them throughout their lives.

The two characters meet on an empty black stage when Medea (Mea) goes to an audition for a role in a play that her teen idol, Yoram (Yo) is putting on. The actors portray the emotions of the moment very well while they also begin spreading colored sand along the ground which accumulates as time passes. At the start, Mea is giddy with hope while Yo is cursing the fame that isolates him. He can't stand love letters or his adoring fans while Mea makes up having received even one. While she waits in line to audition, she catches Yo's attention, but not for the right reasons. She has had a drink of Brandy, and Yo notices that her eyes glisten. He asks her to audition, but while in her mind, she impresses, in reality, Yo can barely stand the sight of her. He sends her away saying, "You have no talent." Mea storms out, and when at home, she fumes. With excellent chemistry and rhythm, the two actors were able to make all this believable whether there were supposed to be two or twenty people in their fictional world.

At first, she plans to kill him with her dad's shot gun, but then she goes to grab her brother's toy gun. She imagines humiliating him in front of everyone but when she arrives, he is alone working late. He hears her coming up the stairs and tries to calm himself down by telling himself it is probably just one of his fans looking for an autograph. Mea appears and threatens him with the toy gun. To her surprise, Yo breaks down crying. She loses all respect for him and tosses the gun on the floor beside the sniveling Yo. He grabs it after she's left and realizes instantly that it is only a toy. There are many emotional aspects portrayed in this opening but there was still a long way to go. The toy gun incident alters both characters' paths in life. Mea runs home to tell her family she no longer wants to be an actress - to their relief. Yo goes home to wallow in the misery of his realization of having broken down in front of this little girl. Mea suddenly has more confidence in school, and Yo begins to cancel shows so that no one sees him miserable. At one point, he throws the gun out the window only to look for it in the dark. When he finally does come out for a show, he is haunted by Mea's face and sees her everywhere in the crowd. But he does the performance and receives applause. 

The Swirling Sand of A Toy Gun

The Swirling Sand of A Toy Gun

Years go by. Yo stays an actor, and Mea gets married and has kids. One day, for her confidence and unique mezzo soprano voice, she is selected for a prestigious scholarship at the famous La Scala in Milan. Everyone is proud and Yo sees Mea on television saying how beautiful she is and not recognizing her as the child with the toy gun. The roles have now been reversed. While Mea once looked up to Yo as untouchable, now Yo looks at Mea the same way. Unfortunately, while she is gone, a civil war breaks out. Yo is brave and fights hard. He is one of two survivors from his battalion. Meanwhile, Mea watches helplessly from abroad and begins to feel the isolation, loneliness, and imprisonment of fame Yo once felt. Because of their fame, both were asked, "Which side are you on?", and both couldn't tell a difference between the sides. 

The remainder of the play deals with this dichotomy. The lives of the two characters are ruled more by their roles in society than by their own desires. Mea continues to succeed as a singer, and ultimately when offered a contract late in her career, she turns it down to return to buy her father's old house to reinvigorate the community. Although her search for purpose abroad had turned into homesickness, the aging Yo, inspired by the incomparable Mea, has begun to learn English and frets that he has wasted too much time. Even when a second civil war breaks out for a little over a week, he risks marching through the dangerous streets in order to study English at his tutor's house. He discovers that English is not as hard as he thought, and he falls in love with his tutor's twin children, who call him Grandpa. He begins to write plays in English, and one of his plays is accepted for production in England. On the same flight he takes into Heathrow, Mea leaves for home. In England, Yo realizes the plays there are pretty bad, saying the audiences there "are bound to like (mine)." He plans to write plays at home so he can spend time with the twins. However, on the flight home, he has a stroke after writing his final play, A Toy Gun. Mea, now living in the same town as Yo, rushes to the hospital to confess that she was the girl from that day long ago. A week later, posted from the day before Yo's death, Mea receives a package and inside is her brother's toy gun and the words, "Thank you for everything dearest."

The solid structure and depth of this play are apparent from the start when society and class lines are insinuated by the briefest mention, but astounding detail lies just beneath the surface at every turn. For example, from London, Mea sees the civil war as lasting three days while in-country Yo and the tutor see a civil war that lasts almost two weeks. These are small things but they serve to create the perspective that details may change based on from whom and when the information is received. The actors brought out the level of depth that made this play well-worth seeing. They engaged the audience to create an intimate setting and deserve credit for solidly executing their lines. There were no complex fight scenes or dramatic dances but they talked easily and moved around the stage pouring different colored sand from envelopes and packing boxes. This seemed to represent the experiences that one accumulates in life because, in the end, each of them had their own large pile and the rings they had formed at the start of the play had become muddled and unclear. It was a cool image (see above) and helped to keep my attention.

I'd recommend this play. It is short and meaningful while others in the festival could have tended to the obscene or abnormal. It is relatable showing that the search for meaning goes beyond finding a day to day purpose. Instead, it is about connecting and forming bonds between people even if by some strange incident involving A Toy Gun. The festival runs from July 19th through August 3rd at Teatro Circulo (