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It might seem glib for the first line of a show about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to also be the title of a Nancy Meyers romcom. But when Aaron Davidman strides on stage and begins his one-man show, Wrestling Jerusalem, by exclaiming “It’s complicated!”… somehow, it works.
Of course, it would be unfortunate if Davidman left us only with this lesson. But as he launches into an energetic litany of dates, places, events, recriminations, and lamentations, enthusiastically demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of the topic, it becomes clear that he’s more than up to the challenge of fashioning the subject matter into a satisfying, moving evening of theater.
Wrestling Jerusalem opens Mosaic Theater Company’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, the brainchild of its Artistic Director Ari Roth, who conceived of the festival in 2000 at his former home, Theater J. The choice of Davidman’s piece as the opener of this year’s return edition of the festival is clearly a personal one for Roth: An earlier iteration of the project was initially commissioned from Davidman by Theater J for its 2007 Voices Festival.
The show faces a number of existential obstacles. A one-man show is, necessarily, something of a high-wire act; a one-man show on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict carries with it an even higher degree of difficulty. Not only is the material highly controversial, but it’s been examined seemingly ad nauseam by academics, historians, politicians, and artists alike.
So while the production may lack for material originality, that’s not exactly Davidman’s fault. His job is to imbue these same old questions with a sense of urgency, to probe them in revealing, interesting ways that resonate with an audience of partisans and novices alike. And throughout the 85-minute production, Davidman unleashes a multitude of different approaches that prove him to be up to the task. He generally structures the show around his personal journey to understand the conflict more clearly, making it known that, as an American Jew, the questions he’s trying to answer are personal, and the stakes are accordingly high.
It’s a technique that pays dividends: As Davidman switches between monologue and dialogue (most memorably through an “argument” with a Hamas-supporting American medical student), he allows himself to act as both the interlocutor of, and the respondent to, the questions that have no answers. Davidman is a masterful impressionist and a solid physical performer. He also exhibits a delightfully dry sense of humor: Grinding his momentum to a halt early in the show, he stares into the audience and intones, “A rabbi walks into a bar…”
Yet Davidman’s greatest quality as a performer is his empathy. He inhabits more than a dozen characters, Israeli and Palestinian alike, without reducing any to caricature. It’s this empathy that’s absolutely crucial to the success of the performance. What comes through so effectively in Davidman’s account is just how certain everyone is about who’s to blame for the situation. And, paradoxically, this means that Davidman occasionally struggles to keep us fully focused.
At a certain point, as we see yet another earnest, resolute individual, speaking intently and directly to the audience, there’s the sense that there’s only so much certainty one can take. It’s this reaction that reveals yet another existential challenge the show faces: the natural inclination of its audience to throw its hands up and absolve itself of responsibility for such a mess.
But Wrestling Jerusalem ultimately triumphs far more often than it falls short. Michael John Garcés’ unobtrusive direction expertly takes advantage of Davidman’s multitudinous gifts, and the superb lighting and sound design of Allen Willner and Bruno Louchouard, respectively, maintains the dramatic tension throughout the performance. Yes, it’s complicated. But as Davidman fervently argues, we need to keep trying to figure it all out.
1333 H St. NE. $20–$40.(202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.