Author Archive for: ‘GuestReview’

“Territories” by Betty Shamieh, directed by Suzanne Dean

A Woman find her Power through Wit, Passion and Wiles By Susan Dunn I confess it. Now that I’ve started to wear a total sunblock veil for hiking, I was particularly drawn to “Territories”, a play that begins and ends with a veiled woman. My own experience being facially covered, even temporarily, has been disturbing and I continue to try to ferret out the implications for women that “Territories” implies. But this is no ‘feminist play’.  There is material here for all sexes to dine on. Black box Royce Gallery is a perfect space for imaginative sets.  For “Territories” the arena stage is divided into a Sultan’s palace on one side and a Crusader’s castle on the other. Navigating and transitioning these power halls with their oversized, armed and imposing rulers is a woman whose actual name was never passed down to us from the history annals, but who will influence these men, their fates and the course of the Crusades. The bare bones of history inspire the playwright, Betty Shamieh, to fictionalize how a woman could have affected and left her mark on world events. Female politics is raging today. In America, women are running for congress, the senate, the presidency. Women are ruling Britain, Germany and are in charge in many countries around the world. So why do white males and white male supremacy continue to dominate the news? It’s just one of many themes being explored in “Territories”. The play transports us to 1187, time of the Third Crusade, when women were ignored in history unless they ruled or married well. Shamieh spins a fictional riff on three characters from that history:  First is Saladin, first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, known to all ages and cultures as a leader, a soldier and a humanitarian. He is a man who embodies the Greek ideal of kleos or renown for great deeds; Second is Reginald of Châtillon, a petty prince, opportunist, pirate and brute who lived by booty and plunder, challenged and fought Saladin and lost his life in battle. – a footnote of a footnote of history, as he tells us; Finally there is Alia, the woman unnamed in history is marked as anonymous by her first appearance in veil.  She is sister to Saladin and fictional instigator of the Third Crusade through her respect of and craving for power. Saladin, Reginald and Alia, — these three characters set off a fireworks of universal issues that resonate with us today. Alia, portrayed by a striking and passionate Katrina Yashar, first appears sumptuously gowned, a woman of education and nobility. But without a husband she is subject to the orders of her brother, a restriction for single females. Removing the veil and figure-hiding clothes frees Alia to navigate the limited world she has, obeying or not her brother Saladin who would keep her respectable and protected. But instead she tastes the forbidden excitement and sexual bliss of an affair with a cruel brute and enemy to her religion. Alia confuses and fascinates from the start. Tarek Caan embodies the valiant and kingly Saladin, who pitches love matches to sister Alia but admits to his own opportunism of marrying for political gain a woman twelve years his senior. His success as a renowned hero comes from caution, vision and expertise in managing his sultanate and politics of the Crusader forces. He would have his sister settled, married and safe. But she instead is a spitfire who mocks that formulaic life he has tried to ease her into. It is interesting that Reginald as well as Saladin marries for political advantage. When women are the mates of rulers who are killed in battle, suddenly their female valuation skyrockets them to influence and force. As a second son, Reginald has had to etch his own way in the French nobility hierarchy, married for political position Constance, the ruling princess of Antioch, and has scrapped in battle, in prison and in his middle-eastern palace in Antioch.. He has used cruelty to burnish a reputation, but in sharp contrast to Saladin’s stolidity he speaks with a humor and wit that attracts and excites Alia. Ultimately Alia becomes the communication go-between, inciting war between her brother and her lover. What is her goal?  What is important to a woman who has eschewed the female norms?  We find out early in the play when a post-mortem Saladin tells us he dies penniless because he has given his wealth away to the poor.  Alia spits out that he is a fool! She chides Saladin for the mercy he shows to his captured enemies. And she respects, even as she is disgusted, with Reginald’s blithe gruesomeness. When she knows she must separate from Reginald, she begs him to “prove that I didn’t fall in love with a coward”. Playwright Shamieh intrigues us with the construct that Alia suffers from a “shaking illness” – a device that would seem to cripple her and sap her power in dealing with both her brother and her captor. She rails both her brother and lover with “You don’t know what it is like to be a woman!”  Almost as a rejoinder, unique shaking choreography seems to be showing us how Alia knows briefly what it is like to be a man (through feeling normal and free of her affliction), and the men, experience womanhood as well, in all its discomforts, through having to experience her shaking fit. Director Artistic Director William Brown and Director, Suzanne Dean, were drawn to this play by the verbal wit of the script, changing relationships of the three characters and their complex personalities. Their actions and reactions often surprise us and each has a unique method of playing the power game. “It’s set in medieval times, but the issues in the play are so relevant today”, says Brown. “There is a Romeo and Juliet aspect where you have characters so opposed by birth and culture, but their opposites ultimately boil down to just people,” says Dean. Audiences should be aware that the play does not follow strict time sequences, and there is some flash back or time scramble that can be cued by projections of an hour glass, and meshing gears.  But the issues and personalities are boldly set out in this production.  Are women as a gender subtly empowered in “Territories”, and will women prevail in our next election over the votes of males? See what you make of the gender puzzle. “TERRITORIES”, run through May 19 at the Arabian Shakespeare Festival, Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco Performances May 3, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19. Weekdays and Saturdays at 8:00pm.  Sundays at 2:00pm

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