"The salmon talked me into a lifestyle change," Rachel Corrie proclaims early in the one-act dramatic monologue that will have a limited run by the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca this week. And regardless of what you know, whatever you may think about the student, activist and human shield who was killed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, the character depicted onstage is a revelation.
"My Name Is Rachel Corrie," with Asia Dillon in the title role, is a mesmerizing play about the young woman, an intimate portrait of a young artist and activist. Politics is secondary to a depiction of the talented and troubled brief life: self-described as "scattered, deviant and too loud," Corrie comes across in the play as messy and passionate, with writings that are occasionally poetic, sometimes propaganda, but always honest.
The Workshop appears to have lined up a season that one would usually have to travel to edgy off Broadway venues to see, but with performances Thursday, January 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., one need only stop by Cornell University's Risley Hall Theatre on this week. For tickets, visit Ticket Center Ithaca, 171 The Commons, which is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday - Saturday; call (607) 273-4497, go to ithacaevents.com, or to the box office at Risley Theater. Advance tickets are $15, and $10 for students and seniors, $25 / $20 day of the show). (If advance sales warrant, a matinee might be added on Saturday; check www.actorsworkshop.biz on Friday for more information on that.)
"I've always been fascinated by public figures that are reviled and revered, depending on who you're talking to," founder of the Actor's Workshop and director Eliza VanCort said. "Some people hold Corrie up as almost a saint, others see her as a naive tool of Palestinian propaganda at best, an unpatriotic anti-Semite at worst. Once you start reading about Corrie, you realize she is neither sinner nor saint. I love that the play reveals her humanity and complexity."
"My Name is Rachel Corrie" is culled from 184 pages of Corrie's own words, most of which had not been seen before The Royal Court Theatre asked Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, a Guardian editor, to edit her writings into a drama.
VanCort points to the words of Corrie's parents: "The play includes some of her writing that might be considered uncomplimentary to us, and even to her. Far better that, though, than being a symbol of one dimension." And though one may critique certain political beliefs unsophisticated, Corrie was nothing if not multi-dimensional.
Some of her observations are boring: Russia is "flawed, dirty, broken and gorgeous"; some are brilliant: an anecdote about flower exports as a metaphor for stifled economic activity; some simply wrong: "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance." Frequently, she sounds downright delusional, in the way that young idealists often can (tellingly, the clearest quote comes from a host, Dr. Samir who says: "Before intifada-no tanks, no bulldozers, no noise. After intifada, daily. Gunshots daily").
But Corrie's words are always honest. "I'm really new to talking about Israel-Palestine, so I don't always know the political implications of my words." Or, "I've had this underlying need to go to a place and meet people who are on the other end of the portion of my tax money that goes to fund the U.S. and other militaries."
"I prefer to find out as much as I can about who the person really was and then work with my actor to capture the true essence of who the person was, rather than simply imitate footage," VanCort reported, describing the act of portraying a real-life figure. "For example, Corrie's footage is largely from after she is in Rafah. She seems overwhelmed, heartbroken, serious and sometimes bereft of words. However, I've actually talked to people who knew her family and read about who she was and in reality she was very funny, self-deprecating, exuberant and had a silver tongue."
It may also be said that her new external reality clarified her own sense of self. "I am older and the world doesn't revolve around me," Corrie reports after first being exposed to gunfire. Her scattered thoughts become more ordered. The more her circumstances seem beyond her control, the more in control she seems.
Describing a nightmare of falling, Corrie says: "And I heard, 'I can't die, I can't die,' again and again in my head. Seems somehow positive compared to the dreams I used to have of tumbling, thinking, 'This is it, I'm going to die.'"
When Corrie arrives in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, "the rhythm of the writing changes dramatically," according to Rickman, as printed in the notes to the play. Viner calls the reports "hard-hitting and intense," which they are, but they also become dogmatic and one-sided. She apologizes in an email to her father "I feel like I spend all of my time propagandizing Mom."
Dillon, VanCort, Assistant Director C.A. Teitelbaum and Stage Manager Kristin Sad rescue whatever flaws the second-half of the play has. A poem about her personal experience working at a mental health clinic in Olympia becomes a political speech, and what amounts to propaganda is treated as what it is: prose from a private journal, and text from personal emails.
"If we had gone with the footage you see on the news and just imitated that, we wouldn't have found Corrie, the person," VanCort said. "We would have been portraying just a slice of who she was when she knew the camera was on her...very different than the Corrie her friends and family knew."
"There are no bells and whistles onstage. It's just one actor carrying the entire show," VanCort noted. "Luckily, we had two things in our favor. For one, Corrie's writing is very vivid and the editing takes advantage of her flair for the dramatic fully. Secondly, Asia [Dillon] is incredibly directable. After each rehearsal, Chris [Assistant Director C. A Teitelbaum] and I probably gave her at least 45 minutes of notes. To our delight, she'd come back to the next rehearsal having practiced them all and would hit them perfectly."
This is especially important because in the course of the play Corrie embodies many different characters - from her father and mother to ex-boyfriends and Palestinians. In rehearsal, Dillon was absolutely magnetic as the main character, but her impressions strike perfect tones: arch, comic, tone-deaf, despairing.
But presenting a balanced theatrical work might have posed the greatest challenge, VanCort said. "There's a piece at the end of the play that could easily be directed as a polemical rant aimed at the audience... In my mind, the proselytizing interpretation isn't true to the where she was at when she wrote those words. She wasn't on a podium, fearless, preaching to a crowd. She was a terrified young woman, alone in her room far from home, writing an anguished email to her mother. So we chose to have her direct the final email to her mother, which we felt was more accurate historically,"
Apart from the last few moments of the work, where an unfortunate eyewitness account is read, "My Name is Rachel Corrie" consists entirely of Corrie's own words. And wisely, it centers on her living, and not dying.
"Our goal was not to put Asia [Dillon] in front of people and have her lecture at the audience about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict," VanCort continued. "Our goal was to show our audience the real Rachel Corrie, a very human young woman who tried to make a difference in the world; whether you agree with how she did it or not is the audience's decision to make, not ours."
In other words, don't go to the play in order to learn about the Arab/Israeli conflict; go to learn about a talented and troubled young woman. Regardless of what you have to say about the political situation, after spending 90 minutes with her there's no question it's a tragedy we'll hear no more from Rachel Corrie.