Tennis in Nablus by Ismail Khalidi. Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...with anger and sadness in our prayers..."
It seems as though being real hurts. Facade and bravado are easy outs when it comes to politics; you only express to impress and not to unburden. In Ismail Khalidi’s play "Tennis in Nablus" which is being given a first-class production at Stageworks Hudson, two men learn this lesson at different rates of discernment and do so in each other’s presence in a dungeon in the Nablus region of Palestine. Yusef Al Qudsi, recently released from a prison term, and his younger cousin Tariq Al Qudsi end up jailed together on charges that each may have conspired to implicate the other in the ongoing Arab Rebellion against the British overlords in that middle eastern state.
Confined in the same cell Tariq and Yusef form an uneasy alliance and come to know one another well. They reflect one another, prove their worth, show their stuff. Yusef’s wife, Anbara, meanwhile becomes a source of inspiration to the rebellion and works to free her husband from his inhuman bondage to the British, all of whom insist on being addressed as "Your Highness." Khalidi draws an almost comic, British TV comedy version of these mis-placed soldiers, an almost Monty Python picture of the military man who cares more for costume parties and posturing than anything else. If his play suffers from any fault it is this one. Parody on one side of an issue implies parody on the other, but I don’t believe that is his intent here.
The picture of the Palestinians and their goals is strong and real. His characters are all too human. We can feel their pain and their need and their resolution. With the Irish and Indian soldiers, also, and with the one Jewish patriot there is a sympathy for the outsider in a world controlled by others. It is only the two Britishers who emerge as bad jokes. The playwright needs them for many things, including the title sequence in Act One, a devastating scene to watch thanks to the heady direction of Laura Margolis. It is just sad that outside of this moment in the play they emerge as just bad jokes.
Anbara is played with an elegant and formidable strength by Maria Silverman. She never wavers in her portrayal of a woman whose love for her husband supports her larger goals of proving her own worth in the struggle that dominates their lives. Her husband, Yusef, is brought to life by Nasser Faris, an actor who can make the simplest line into a torrent of hidden emotions. Watching him in this play is akin to eaves-dropping there is so much reality in his work. Whether toying with his cousin’s different beliefs or admiring his wife’s abilities he never seems to be acting, but only living. That sort of talent is rare and it must be seen to be understood.
Fajer Al-Kaisi plays Tariq. His voice and his good looks make him both sympathetic and charismatically the center of the play. His presence almost throws the balance of the show off to one side, but his generosity on stage to those he performs opposite throws it right back. Margolis often has him work with his back turned to the audience as he communicates with Yusef or with his British captors. In doing so, the actor responds to the reality of each situation and provides a point of view for the audience; we literally experience much of his torment and his growth from his own point of view.
Chet Carlin takes on two very different roles: British General Falbour, the comic relief of the play and Hajj Waleed, an Arab merchant and confidante of Anbara. As the officer he is prototypically silly. As Hajj he presents a classic picture of the wily middle-easterner, a "Kismet" character. He succeeds in both roles. Matt Falber plays Falbour’s aide and tennis partner (notice that similarity in names... hmmm), a junior edition of the General. He is a maker of moué and it works well for the man he portrays.
Christopher Smith is the Jewish patriot Samuel Hirsch and also plays the spirit of the Mexican bandit Zapata. It is a curious juxtaposition of roles and Smith handles them each with a different mien and a different voice. His final scene as Sam is both poignant and telling and easily sets up the next act of aggression - one that is only hinted at in the text of this play.
Shivantha Wijesinha and Jack Kesy are the soldiers from India and Ireland who take more than a passing interest in the fates of the two cousins. If there are transitions and growth in this characters in Khalidi’s play they can best be found in these two men. In the short time it takes to move from point A to point G during the Spring and Summer of 1939 Rajib and O’Donegal are the reflection of the host of deployed men who witness and learn from what they see. Both actors show us how human men can be. Both do their jobs well.
Margolis has worked her cast into that place where acting a story and living a reality merge into a seamless condition. She has given us a play that moves like a film, expands the staginess of a black-box theater into a visit to an ancient town. She turns her audience into tourists, her actors into the genuine article and even shown us close-ups that turn her storyboard show into a documentary.
She has the aid of superior designers. John Sowle’s set alters to fit the moment and even the visible changes are somehow perfectly right. His lighting focuses our attention and brings us to places when we need to go to them. Natalie Lunn’s costumes are so suitable than a western dress fits Anbara’s need and growth, and a tablecloth adorns O’Donegal perfectly. Will Severin’s music and sound design is so perfectly a part of the texture of this play that I cannot imagine it played without his contributions. He underscores as a movie would but he also provides external rhythms and melodies that bring us directly to Nablus, that Palestinian town in the Holy Land where the plot needs us to be for these two hours and twenty-four minutes.
This is an early work by a talented writer whose career should be fascinating to watch. It is a very good play given a very good production and, as such, is something you will want to see. You won’t regret the time and you won’t forget the impact and you will discover a world most of us never knew anything about. For me that is theater.
Maria Silverman, Nasser Faris, Chet Carlin; photo: Rob Shannon
Fajer Al-Kaisi and Christopher Smith; photo: Rob Shannon
Shivantha Wijesinha and Jack Kesy; photo: Rob Shannon
Tennis in Nablus plays at Stageworks Hudson, locatged at 41-A Cross Street in Hudson, New York, through September 25. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-822-9667.