And it’s people, speaking in voices both stentorian and stilled, that populate the poetic expanse of the Mideast called The Fever Chart. Naomi Wallace’s unassuming triple bill, which The Public Theater is producing as part of its new Public Lab workshop series, brings the lilt of lyricism to mundane events, finding in their echoes a region and people you might have thought you understood but that you don’t really know. The catch is, neither do they.
The fluidity of identity and the uncertainty of perception are key throughout the three plays, which have been sparely but starkly directed by Jo Bonney. Whether Wallace is guiding you through a ghostly zoo, peeking in a deserted hospital after hours, or even eavesdropping on a speech at the International Pigeon Convention, the harsh light of reality she shines on those she discovers doesn’t instantly display them more clearly, but only inspires further questions about what their real purpose is.
It’s obvious early in the first play, “A State of Innocence,” that the Palestinian woman (Lameece Issaq) who knows far too much about the Israeli soldier (Arian Moayed) who can’t stop admiring the animals he guards, is not exactly what she claims to be; the architect (Waleed F. Zuaiter) who can’t stop measuring the eroding edifice is also too unusual to be strictly coincidental. But they can’t maintain hate for each other anymore than can the middle-aged Palestinian man (Zuaiter again) in “Between this Breath and You” who believes that the young Israeli nurse (Natalie Gold) he meets is carrying about part of his dead son - literally and figuratively.
Though they do so with florid, elevated language, they’re never preachy - each situation is sufficiently far-reaching to deserve the melody it’s been composed to. The sounds strain only rarely, mostly in “Between this Breath and You” for a philosophical janitor (Moayed) who sees God (and others) in his mop for reasons better attributed to dramatic expediency than cosmic necessity. Likewise, Wallace’s plotting mocks with its lack of sophistication, relying on twists in the first two plays that even M. Night Shyamalan would reject as unduly obvious.
Past these, however, the stories disarm with their simplicity, as well as their straightforward determination to let everyone’s inner artist emerge. The evening’s subtitle is “Three Visions of the Middle East,” and it’s highly appropriate: Each individual play seems to exist and then vanish in a blink, leaving behind only vague memories and semitransparent images: of a musical phrase, of a declarative line reading that aligns just so with Wallace’s writing (especially Zuaiter and Gold in the second play and Metwally in the third), of an important section of the world that never gets its just due.
It takes The Fever Chart a shade too long to say what it needs to; a rethinking, or some more polishing, of the first five minutes of the first and second plays would do wonders (the third, if the most fanciful, is also the tightest). But Wallace has otherwise written a beautiful and haunting trio of works that make the everyday forgotten souls of the Middle East not just memorable, but remarkable.
The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East