Review: Wrestling Jerusalem (Sara Schawrtz Geller Productions)

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling JerusalemWrestling Jerusalem, a play that tackles the Israel-Palestine conflict plays in Toronto

Have you always wanted to visit Israel but never had the opportunity? Then head down to Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre, and take in a performance of Wrestling Jerusalem. Aaron Davidman gives voice to 17 different characters from all walks of life in this play, introducing us to men, women, Jews, Muslims, and soldiers. After seeing the 90-minute play I had an image of Israel that was vivid, hopeful, empathetic and, hopefully, long-lasting.

Solo shows run the risk of being an ego trip, but Wrestling Jerusalem is anything but. Davidman spent a decade putting the play together, and lived in Jerusalem for six months as an American Jew. It isn’t preachy, and it isn’t pro-one side or anti-the other side. Wrestling Jerusalem is a heartfelt request, almost a plea, encouraging people to engage in conversation. Davidman has a mature perspective: he simply wants us to understand each other, to heal and for the violence to end.

While the stage is empty, Davidman makes use of every inch of it, filling it with “conversations”, singing, praying and dancing. We can almost see the bus he rides into East Jerusalem and other parts of the Middle East. He is a gifted storyteller who paints a vivid picture with words and non-verbal communication.

Using his voice and mannerisms, Davidman made us feel like we were on the bus with him as he sought shelter from bullets. We were with him as he passed through the gates of Jerusalem. Afterwards, Stan, my guest for the evening, and I agreed that we were both salivating when Davidman described “one of the most delicious meals” he had ever enjoyed. Wrestling Jerusalem is a feast for your senses. Talk about an “all-inclusive” getaway!

Davidman includes a LOT of information, characters and scenes in Wrestling Jerusalem. The wars and conflicts he mentions make it seem like an endless, armed conflict. It’s hard to see hope for outsiders like Stan and myself. However, as he introduces us to people who live there, humanity takes over and it is like there is a candle of hope flickering.

By hearing stories from someone who has spent time in Israel, we get a truer picture of the land and the people. Rather than reading or seeing news stories, Davidman shares with us the personalities of individuals on all sides of the conflict. We can see the emotions in his face and hear the honesty in his voice. He is a wonderful storyteller and has obviously found his passion.

And speaking of non-verbal communication, one of the extraordinary scenes in Wrestling Jerusalem is when Davidman talks about a mother holding her child. The child only sees seven inches of their mom’s face, but can feel all her emotions, whether they are happiness, fear or terror. The child knows and understands, and those emotions will likely be with the boy or girl for a very long time, maybe forever. By extension, this seems to be the sad fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I love that Davidman pulls on our heartstrings but also feeds our minds at the same time.

Unseen but essential for making Wrestling Jerusalem a powerful and immersive play are the people behind the scenes. The lighting design of Allen Wilner is subtle, yet essential. I thought that it enhanced the words and movements of Davidman with different intensities and subtle colours.

Bruno Louchourn did an excellent job of making the words of Davidman crystal clear. His subtle use of sound also made our trip through this part of the Middle East more authentic.

Before the play began I made a joke to Stan that the backdrop was wrinkled and could use an iron. I think the wrinkles are symbolic of the troubles in and around Jerusalem, and nothing is straightforward or “clean”. The lighting also gave the painted backdrop different “moods” at times. Hats off to Nephelie Andonyadis for her scenic and costume design.

Davidman eloquently explains a simple prayer that I understood to mean that “we are one under God”. Later I realized that it is the same message that Bob Marley had in mind when he sang “One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel all right.” I think that was the main “takeaway” for Stan and myself.

Each show is followed by a facilitated 20-minute conversation with some of Toronto’s leading voices on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, so be sure to stick around and feed your brain.

So really, take it from Stan and me: why hop on a plane and suffer jetlag when you can take a guided tour of Israel by simply hopping on a King streetcar and seeing the play Wrestling Jerusalem?

Shalom.

Details:

  • Wrestling Jerusalem is playing until September 27, 2016 at The Berkeley Downstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
  • Shows run Wednesday and Thursday at 8PM, Friday at 7PM, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm,
    with an additional matinee on Sunday at 1pm
  • Ticket prices range from $36 – $48, and are available available online, by phone at 416-368-3110 or at the box office.

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