The first words in Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem are, “It’s complicated.” Well, yeah. Davidman, who created the work as a commission for Theatre J’s formerly embattled artistic director, Ari Roth, has taken this solo performance — in which he portrays 17 residents of the Holy Land — around the country to corporate retreats, onscreen, and now to Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Davidman, who's slight with short ginger hair and a goatee, wearing pale linen pants and shirt, stands before a simple backdrop stained the colors of the Israeli landscape: terracotta, sand, slate. These tones shift hotter and cooler with the content of the conversation (thanks to Nephelie Andonyadis’s set and Allen Willner’s lighting design). He dances, contorts, and sings the Hebrew children’s-song refrain “lai, lai, lai,” which morphs into a reverent call of "Allahu akbar.” He rattles off all the reasons the dispute is “their” fault: Hamas, Likud, Abbas, Netanyahu, terrorism, occupation, Moses, Mohammed, the British, the Germans, the Arabs, the Jews. Is it an apartheid wall or a security fence? Everything in the city of Jerusalem seems to stand in opposition to something else.
The missing piece
But if this were all the piece offered, it wouldn’t be offering much. Davidman hurls a hundred sense-memories and snapshots of his personal Jewish history. Summers at the same Communist camp his father once attended. His first visit to Israel in 1992 (When his plane landed, he kissed the ground — but even that, it turns out, was complicated.) It’s his way of easing us from our familiar surroundings and across the ocean to one of the most contested slivers of land on Earth.
Spoiler alert: Davidman doesn’t have any answers. What he does have is the ability to empathize with every side of the debate. He embodies everyone from an Israeli Defense Forces commander to the survivor of a terrorist attack to a Jewish U.S. expat and Hamas sympathizer to an Arab resident of Ramallah who stares every day at the seized land that once housed his family’s orchard.
There are also expressions of universality. One Jewish man exults in his interpretation of the words Adonai echad, from the shema, Judaism’s holiest prayer. Instead of meaning, “There is only one Lord,” he believes it’s a message that we are all one. A doctor observes that “trauma is trauma,” whoever the victim.
Davidman, under Michael John Garcés’s direction, doesn’t go in for hokey melodramatic physical transformations; he stands a little straighter or looser and lets the people’s voices, with accents that span the world, do the work. It’s as though, by acting as a conduit for their words, he’s brought them back as souvenirs to be examined and admired. Thing is, as the band Pulp once sang, everybody hates a tourist.
We’re left with a record of everyone’s opinions except those of the person presenting them. As the show is currently constructed, if we don’t know Davidman’s stake in this, the way his journey changed him (or didn’t), there’s no dramatic tension. It’s just a continuum that creates plenty of real-life drama, but precious little onstage.
“I can’t piece anything together, but maybe the fragments are all we have,” Davidman concludes — except he has pieced them together. He just left the most important shard out of this mosaic.