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The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East
Arian Moayed, Lameece Issaq, and Waleed F. Zuaiter.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Try to forget what you know about the Middle East: vast swaths of desert sands, strife between Palestine and Israel stretching as far as the mind can reach, the disputes over oil and anger that ignite new discourse every day. Instead, look for the beauty, the essence of verdant humanity thriving among the perceived wastes. Whatever else may be said about those who live here, they are, first and foremost, people.

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.

The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East
Omar Metwally
Photo by Joan Marcus.

They may all be driven on some level by atmospheric hate, but possess - and demonstrate - the potential to tap their deepest stores of love. Wallace doesn’t claim this is easy, and each play depends on the recognition that generations of tension and suspicion don’t dissipate overnight. While the third play, “The Retreating World,” a monologue for a curious young Arab named Ali (Omar Metwally), is most overt in its symbolism (pigeons and doves are of prime significance), each chapter persistently declares that unity is the only way.

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
Through May 11
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater