June 2, 2005
Cooking Up a Meaningful Plot
"To make really great falafel, crunchy on the outside and smooth and light on the inside, you must use only Bulgarian chickpeas," British playwright Robin Soans said. "Next, you soak them in water for eight hours."
Soans, who talks in the sonorous tones of the veteran Shakespearean actor he is, knows whereof he speaks.
He is, after all, the author of the play "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook," whose characters spend a good deal of stage time preparing a feast's worth of delicacies, including falafel, humus, gefilte fish, and a dish that combines stuffed zucchini and stuffed vine leaves with chicken.
Despite its title and the food, the play at The Met Theatre employs culinary arts not as an end, but a means to explore the complex and emotional Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I didn't want to write an agitprop or political play, but talk about the human condition of everyday people," Soans said.
Soans developed his storyline shortly after he was approached by two London directors, one Jewish and the other Arab, who were aiming for a different play about the Middle East conflict.
The directors started making contacts in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and last year Soans traveled to the region for five weeks of intensive interviews.
"Both Jews and Arabs are passionate about food," Soans said. "They have that in common. I thought if I started out talking to them about their love of cooking, I could find out about the daily lives, without getting right away into their hostilities and grievances."
"I did about four interviews a day and talked to about 80 people, purposely avoiding extremists and politicians," Soans said. "I never used a tape recorder -- it puts people off -- and took notes sparingly."
Blessed with a retentive memory, Soans recreated the conversations and shaped them into a "verbatim play," a technique he used in his previous works.
The same approach marks his current London play, "Talking to Terrorists," in which terrorists, hostages and politicians of different nationalities explore what it is that transforms an ordinary man into a mass killer.
"Cookbook" proved a critical success in Britain. The current American premiere is directed by Louis Fantasia, who has staged plays in at least 10 countries.
My cooking skills and interests extend to boiled eggs and barbecued hot dogs, but this drama was still deeply engaging. Without downplaying antagonisms and grievances, the play focuses on the preoccupations of daily life amidst a constant, back-of-the-mind danger and fear of death.
In 10 scenes, nine actors represent 40 characters, with the Arab-Jewish-Anglo-Iranian-Australian cast alternately playing Jewish and Arab men and women.
Partisans of both Israel and the Palestinians will find different segments to affirm or reject.
In one scene, Yaacov (Ric Borelli), a Jerusalem bus driver, notes the incessant strain of sizing up each bus passenger as a potential killer and recalls how a suicide bomber blew up the bus driven by a close friend in front of his eyes.
At another point, an elderly Arab graphically describes the stench, poverty and hopelessness of a refugee camp that holds 15,000 people. In the next scene, the same excellent actor, Ismail Abou-El-Kanater, plays a Jewish guest lifting up his glass in a "l'chayim" at a Rosh Hashanah dinner.
Often, the uncertainty of life is brought home by an off-hand comment. A Palestinian woman proudly shows off her vegetable garden, then points casually to a front gate with 18 bullet holes.
Providing a much-appreciated feisty humor is Rena (Jill Holden), a middle-aged American immigrant, who views the situation through the eyes of an insider-outsider.
"We try to live a normal life on the surface, but underneath there are cracks," she muses.
Asked why she is not returning to America after her husband's death, Rena explains that in Israel she has found the profound, deep friendships she never formed in New York.
Soans' play shows perspectives from both sides of the Green Line, but he acknowledged that the British are not always so even-handed.
"We are a liberal country and tend to side with the perceived underdog, in this case the Palestinians," he said. "Perhaps we need to be more sophisticated about our sympathies."
Performances of "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook" are Thursdays-Sundays through June 26 at The Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave. (near Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue). Thursday performances are followed by discussion between cast and audience. $15-$20. (323) 957-1152. For additional information, including detailed recipes for dishes prepared on stage: www.TheArab-IsraeliCookbook-LA.com.
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