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Dorothy Chansky

Girl Gone Mild

Review of "My Name is Rachel Corrie"
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane (between W. 3 and Bleecker)
Oct.5-Nov. 19, 2006
Box Office: (212)420-8000 or Ticketmaster (212)307)4100

"My name is Rachel Corrie" has had a three-part life. The play was a hit when it opened in London in Spring, 2005. Next it was a cause célèbre when New York Theatre Workshop cancelled a planned production a year later. NYTC was presumably worried about a hot potato that might offend Jewish theatergoers because its title character is pro-Palestinian. (Note to producers: we can take it. Or leave it if we choose.) Finally, the play opened in October, with much anticipation but little hoopla—just about the right balance for a modest but moving piece of writing that packs a punch in performance and gives pause for a lot of thought during and after.

Rachel Corrie, born in Washington state and killed in Gaza in 2003 at the age of 23, was a free spirit with a social conscience a mile wide. The play is a patchwork chronicle of her life, constructed from her diaries and emails by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. Rickman directed the London and the New York productions, and his goal as both writer and director seems to be to honor Corrie's memory, but also to suggest the ordinary backgrounds from which extraordinary people emerge.

Young Rachel (played energetically and earnestly by Bree Elrod at the performance I attended) is both intense and flaky, as she glues pictures all over the walls of her room, rummages for clean laundry, and somberly intones in her twelve-year-old voice that what's important is for everyone to feel safe. Zodiac signs, outbursts of crying, a wish that she could have met Salvador Dali and Martin Luther King, and a concern for the salmon swimming in the local marina are the bits of girl mosaic that she shares via Rickman and Viner's editing. Her room is red, her mother lets her cut school to hang out at the bookstore, and she develops a healthy scorn for self-satisfied Americans whose "highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall." So far so trite.

The piece takes off, though, when Rachel leaves for Israel as part of an international group interested simply in helping Palestinian families protect their homes, wells, gardens, and sanity. The red wall slides offstage and Johanna Town's lighting takes us to a world of bombed out buildings, fluorescent light, naked bulbs, too-bright sun, and ominous shadows. The final fifteen minutes of the play pair two bizarrely different yet related spins on personal social activism. A riotous fable in poem form sends up the pieties and infantilization that go with working at American shelters and drop-in centers. As Rachel ventriloquizes her at-the-end-of-their-rope clients, she grants them the critical capacity to call her on her hypocrisy and manipulative use of "we" when she really means them alone. The final speech stakes out an unwillingness to privilege well-funded and aggressive Israeli lives over those of Palestinian civilians who can't even get clean water, much less get to work with their towns under siege. The statistics and passion in the speech are both persuasive and a little scary, as Rachel seems to have become nearly a religious fanatic.

And then she is gone. A televised news broadcast informs us she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer when she refused to step away from the Palestinian house she was protecting. In the final moments of the evening, the monitor features a video of the real Rachel Corrie at the age of about ten, speaking with perfect poise and conviction about her dream to stop world hunger. The curtain call oddly resuscitates the possibility of arguing with the play (choppy? Sentimental? Pedantic?) or the performance (cute girl evolves into militant peacenik?). But the clip makes it clear that an actual girl died for her beliefs and knew at a startlingly early age what was worth what in her world. Oddly, no performance can quite match the painful reality of the never-moreness of the real Rachel. And no piece of theatre could possibly be as controversial as the problem for which she died.

After a tempest in a teapot over whether this play could or would open in the United States in light of its pro-Palestinian sympathies, "My Name is Rachel Corrie" emerges as an engaging one-woman show most remarkable for the brave idealist whose life it presents.

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