Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
And thus begins Pear Theatre's production of the funny, poignant, and altogether politically timely play, Veils by Tom Coash, the 2015 winner of the American Theatre Critics Association M. Elizabeth Osborn Award. Set in the midst of the 2011 Arab Spring upheavals that spread revolutionary fever and rioting into Cairo itself, Veils is at the heart about two young women who have counter ideas about what is and is not appropriate for Islamic women to wearan issue still very much alive throughout the world in 2016.
American born Intisar just wants to learn Arabic and further her knowledge for Islam, even dreaming of someday being such a well-grounded practitioner that she might be the first woman ever to sing the call to worship in some tall minaret. For her, wearing the hijab is fulfilling a sacred commandment and an honor.
On the other hand, Egyptian native Samar is more interested in getting hired by the New York Times and is using her video blog (with its current twelve followers, including her mom) to practice broadcasting her views on politics and women's issues. She sees wearing the hijab to be like "allowing the nose of the camel into the tent," since once in, the camel takes over the entire space. For her, wearing the hijabor even worse the total-body-covering burkais just the first step in her rights as a woman being trampled by men who only want their women for themselves.
As they wrestle with their own and each other's views and how to fulfill their obligations to their Islamic religion, the two young women also find themselves clashing on how the West and the Middle East see and deal with each other. ("Why do all Americans come here to fix us and to make us like you?" Samar demands at one point.) The increasingly emotional tension in their dorm room eventually is inflamed and superseded by the fiery events on the tear-gassed streets below them as each girl becomes a victim of rocks thrown, brutal police, and for one, even a de-humanizing virginity test in front of a room of glaring men. The ensuing events test each girl's boundaries of belief and fortitude as well as friendship and loyalty. Their rocky journey togetherpeppered by moments of college girl silliness even amongst such heavy surroundingsis one sure to intrigue, inform, challenge, and touch at the very core.
Amani Dorn and Naseem Etemad credibly, sensitively, and even boldly assume the roles of college-age Intisar and Samar, respectively. Each portrays with great skills the passing whims and the deeply felt convictions that so often accompany being away at university when passions, causes, and dreams are as important and real as their texts and tests, and even as their possible dates and club nights. They each dig deep to show a wide range of emotional responses to their up and down feelings about each other, about the pressures from their parents, and about the monumental events exploding around them.
Clearly aiding and enhancing their portrayals is the astute, compassionate, and completely effective direction by Vickie Rozell. In the play's many electrically charged scenes, it would be easy for young actors to over-play the emotions, to over-do the flare-ups, or to turn the focus more on them and away from the messages and subjects they are there to convey. It is evident to me that a director's coaching and vision has guided this production in every respect, allowing the two young actors to blossom in their parts and to sell their characters as two very real human beings in search of who they are, what they believe.
Helping set the greater context of the events of those tumultuous times is the effective use of five video screens. John Beamer has created excellent footage in videos and photograph collages of what the girls are seeing out their window. Those same screens give glimpses of their early sightseeing forays as well as real-time images of each being filmed for Samar's blog.
However, it is especially in the filming of the blog sequences when the play's script becomes at times too much like a classroom lecture. Seeing one of the principals on screen explaining in quite some detail the practices of wearing a hijab is at first helpful and interesting, but later becomes a bit too long and de-focusing from the story itself. Better, in my opinion, is when we learn some of those same bits of information through the girls' dialogs and arguments.
Ron Gasparinetti has created a set that has hints of the Middle East in its background arches and is easily adjusted for the various scenes of the two-act play. Heidi Kobara has designed exactly what would be worn by college girls who hold the differing beliefs these two do and has created veils that inform by their beauty and grace beyond the stereotypical images too often seen on Fox News. Steven Schoenbeck has greatly enhanced the Egyptian and Islamic contexts through a sometimes toe-tapping, sometimes haunting soundtrack of music and sounds. Finally, Joseph Hidde's lighting design and execution is flawless in ensuring days pass before our eyes into nights and action is clearly in focus at all times.
Having just returned from Europe where every day there were headlines about the current burqini bans and rejection of bans on the beaches of France, I applaud Pear Theatre's inclusion of Veils in its new season's repertoire. Tom Coash's play is one that should be seen and discussed because similar challenges and issues are certain to have headline appearance much closer to home in this election year where immigration, terrorism, and Islamic practice too often become topics meant to inflame and not inform. Congratulations to Pear Theatre, to this cast, and to this director and her production team for staging such an exemplary Veils.
Veils continues through September 18, 2016, in repertory with The Guys at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.