Friday, June 08, 2012

THEATER: "Food and Fadwa"

Photo/Joan Marcus
Food and Fadwa opens with a crash course on Palestinian parties, a direct address from Fadwa (Lameece Issaq) to her studio audience that both fills us in on the premise -- Fadwa's younger sister Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui) is getting married to Emir (Arian Moayed), and Fadwa's beloved Youssif (Haaz Sleiman), who also happens to be Emir's brother, is flying back from New York for the celebration -- and then fills us up with an authentic recipe for baba ghanoush. This dish is a lesson in of itself, in that it illustrates Fadwa's tender feelings for her own "spoiled old daddy," her senile Baba (Laith Nakli); it is also representative of this deliciously stuffed play, in that food, family, and tradition are the ingredients that speak to life in war-torn, restricted Bethlehem. Fadwa's cooking show, incidentally, is fiction (it's a device that she uses to cope with the pressure around her), but the friction is real, especially when we learn how much she hates her traitorous cousin, the half-American Hayat (Heather Raffo), a Beard-winning Food Network star . . . and Youssif's employer and, now, lover.

There's no simple recipe that could be followed to describe or recreate the effects of this play; if Fadwa's secret technique involves speaking lovingly to your food, then director Shana Gold's heart must have been overflowing with (deserved) compliments to her cast and crew. That the play itself, written by Issaq and Jacob Kader, has been simmering in development for roughly five years, speaks even more to the fully realized flavors -- so much so that even the necessary table setting of plot and character establishment that consumes Act I comes across as powerful, interesting, and informative stuff. Most importantly, the cultural portion sizes -- and their presentation -- is such that you'll never feel overwhelmed; in truth, you'll feel at home. Familiarity, after all, is the way in which Food and Fadwa truly sinks its teeth into you; there may be valid political reasons for the 24-hour-curfew, or the endless checkpoints that turn the five-mile drive into Jerusalem into a five-hour affair, but from a household perspective, short on food, electricity, and nerves, it's impossible not to be moved.

Impossible, too, not to be uplifted by the hope that blossoms even in these conditions: when war postpones your wedding, turn the meal into rations for your trapped family; when your husband goes missing, show your faith and conviction by refusing to change out of your wedding dress; savor those beautiful moments of cleanliness and clarity: a shaving ceremony momentarily snaps Baba out of his fugue and has him calling for his oud; and make your own future, by planting and preserving the olive trees sacred to your family and food. That's the reason, at least, for the comic presence of Aunt Samia (Kathryn Kates), the constantly smoking and gossiping tough old broad who never ages a day and who knows that the true tragedy of a blackout is in not being able to vote for your favorite singer on Arab Idol: life goes on, no?

Even those who dismiss the cultural aspects of this play as a mere garnish -- such a humorously depicted "visual aid" of the labyrinthine checkpoint system -- and who might call this a literal kitchen-sink domestic drama would have to pause at such consistent performances. Issaq in particularly is a pleasure to watch, slowly fraying from her hyper-friendly "television" personality to a pitiably jealous spinster, her wide smile cracking each time her father slips away. Sleiman's terrific, too, swapping between a slick, jocular bravado with his family and a raw, heartfelt emotion within his attempts to get through to his soon-to-be father-in-law.  As for Nakli himself, his character's moments of lucidity (in flashbacks and occasionally in the present) are so powerful that they make his general confusion all the more devastating. It's harder to speak about Raffo and Moayed's characters: the former's is meant to be overwhelming (and distasteful), whereas the latter's is saddled with the most blatantly (and blandly) scripted portions of the show: it's hard to see Hayat and Youssif as an item.

Despite that, Food and Fadwa remains a treat for your theatrical taste-buds: sweet, sour, bitter, occasionally salty, and overall umami.

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