"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." -John 15:13, King James Version of the Bible.
Following the Los Angeles premiere of My Name is Rachel Corrie, in the post-performance panel and Q&A, renowned Oscar-winning cinematographer and Medium Cool helmer Haskell Wexler, and Susan Angelo, director of this one-woman show starring Samara Frame, each stated it "is not a great play."
Then why did the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum and the company's Artistic Director Ellen Geer, both stalwarts of L.A. theater and renowned for their Shakespeare and Chekhov, select it as the inaugural performance for adults in its 88-seat S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion? Especially given the white-haired Ms. Geer's claim that pressure was leveraged against the theater, and that she was threatened, for daring to present a controversial play with a history of being suppressed?
The answer, of course, lies in the subject matter of the play, which was largely pieced together from the eponymous title character's writings.
Journalist/editor Katherine Viner of London's Guardian and British actor Alan Rickman (Robin Hood, Harry Potter and Bottle Shock), wove the script from Corrie's journals, letters and emails, and from facts known about the young Washington State woman's life and death.
In 2003, during the Second Intifada, the 23-year-old activist joined the International Solidarity Movement, composed of foreigners practicing nonviolent direct action in support of Palestinian rights, in the Gaza Strip to monitor and protest Israel's occupation. On March 16, holding a megaphone and wearing an orange fluorescent jacket, Corrie boldly placed herself between an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer and the home of a Palestinian pharmacist that she believed the Caterpillar was about to raze. The massive vehicle literally bulldozed Corrie, breaking her back, killing her, and creating a non-Arab martyr for the Palestinian cause.
The Rachel Corrie incident has been the subject of much contention. Was this a case of coldblooded murder and a war crime, or is it true that the bulldozer operator didn't see Corrie?
After the play's 2005 award-winning opening at London's Royal Court Theatre the controversy ratcheted up surrounding Corrie's actions and death. The New York Theater Workshop postponed its 2006 U.S. premiere, which eventually opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.
The Theatricum faced opposition to My Name is Rachel Corrie from those sympathetic to Israel's right-wing. In the constant propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians, each side claims the moral high ground. Pro-Israeli attempts to stifle artistic works that deviate from the official Israeli line promote the notion that Jews, and Israelis in particular, are victims, and not victimizers who perpetrate human rights abuses.
But this censorship campaign, unbecoming the "People of the Book," is counterproductive. By trying to muzzle it, the play's pro-Israeli detractors merely shine more light on what is, after all, not a particularly good play. Samara Frame's Rachel comes across as a flaky, hippie-dippie girl who one day winds up in war torn Gaza. We do get a sense of Corrie's heightened politicization once she experiences Rafah, but her bulldozing just seems to come out of nowhere. From a dramatic point of view the play has big structural challenges.
Frame is good but not great as Corrie. Maybe Corrie was ditzy, but I couldn't help feel that this depiction somewhat trivialized someone who so bravely sacrificed so much for other suffering people by putting her own life on the line.
The illuminating film clip of fifth-grade Rachel that closes the hour-plus show evinces more conviction and arguably intellect than the onstage adult Corrie does. To me the most telling line comes when our protagonist, confronted by the sheer brutality and cruelty of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, confesses that she is losing her faith in humanity - quite a contrast to Anne Frank's words, "In spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart."
And this is what the would-be censors are so anxious about: Audiences might start asking, "Who's wearing the jackboots now? Have yesterday's victims become today's victimizers?" Just the other day a UN report declared that Israeli forces used "excessive and unreasonable force" against the freedom flotilla to Gaza, wherein nine activists were killed on May 31, 2010, in international waters by the IDF aboard the Mavi Marmara ship, which was trying to break Israel's embargo of Gaza by delivering humanitarian aid.
This is why works like My Name is Rachel Corrie are so important, as they present a countervailing narrative to the official line in the U.S., even though the rest of the world largely considers Israel's occupation of Palestine to be illegal. Often the entire UN General Assembly votes against Israeli policy, except for the U.S. and its tiny neo-colony of Micronesia. (The issue of Palestinian statehood is due to come up soon before that international body.)
Despite its dramatic flaws, My Name is Rachel Corrie raises profound questions that must be publicly aired and discussed. So bravo to the Theatricum for its courage in presenting the L.A. premiere and for insisting on freedom of speech.
My Name is Rachel Corrie is being performed Sept. 15 and 22 at 8 p.m. at the Taper Pavilion of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, Calif. For more information call 310.455.3723 or see www.Theatricum.com.
Photo: Courtesy Ed Rampell