Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Marquette's "My Name Is Rachel Corrie"

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre was relatively packed last night for the first of three performances of  My Name is Rachel Corrie. Audiences filtering in could here the distinct sound of music by Pat Benatar. Having grown-up in the ‘80’s, I was familiar with her music, but had no idea how many hit songs she had until I sat down roughly a half hour before the show . . . some of them I hadn’t heard in quite a while. Evidently Rachel Corrie loved the music of Pat Benatar. The rather large audience amassing in the Helfaer Theatre wasn’t there to see Corrie. She had been crushed to death by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip during a protest in 2003.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie consists of diary entries, letters, emails and other bits of text that Corrie wrote that have been assembled by film actor Alan Rickman and British Journalist Katherine Viner. The show debuted in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2005. The Marquette University production stars Jennifer Shine as the 23 year-old American activist from the state of Washington.

Still featuring the blocky white projection screen and painted floor pattern from its production of The Heidi Chronicles, the stage is set for the unique parameters of the monologue with a mattress, a clutter of books and diaries strewn about the floor and a single desk in the far corner. The blocky projection screen is used for slides that help establish he mood. As Jennifer Shine begins her monologue, she is in and out of bed, reading from her journal and intermittently packing a bag. What at first feels like any other undergraduate delivering a monologue quickly becomes lost in the text—Rickman and Viner have done an impressive job of weaving the script for a one-woman show entirely out of various bits of writing Corrie had done. The work of a thoughtful diarist combines with lists, emails and other things she had written to form something that feels flawless enough to have been written specifically for the stage.   

What opens with all the energy and wonder of someone really trying to figure it all out in her late teens/early twenties quickly evolves into something more. She starts talking about activism—a bit surprised at all that she is becoming involved with. Somewhere around what feels like halfway through the play, she is completely packed-up and ready to go out to Gaza—all her books packed away in a duffel bag. The symbolic use of the desk when she is in Gaza probably sounds a bit clumsy, but Shine’s performance makes everything feel pretty natural throughout the performance. She modulates well from moment to moment. She opens with an irrepressibly wide-eyed curiosity about things at home. By the plays’ end she is nervous, concerned, smoking cigarettes and living in Gaza.

Jennifer Shine’s performance does much to deliver the emotional impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as seen through the eyes of an American serving in the International Solidarity Movement during the second Intifada. Much of the political complexity of the situation is blurred-out by the human emotional tragedy in Gaza, but that’s exactly where the play makes its strongest impact. Seen through the eyes of a woman who could’ve simply stayed in the US, gotten a nice middle-class job somewhere and lived quietly, the disparity between war and peace is staggering.

Many of the  details of Corrie’s death never become clear. The drama of the ISM’s peaceful activities in the area are never fully illuminated. She was a part of a human shield protecting houses from an armored bulldozer when she was crushed. The play never goes into much detail on  the ISM, presumably because Corrie never wrote about it in detail. All we get for closure n the play is a brief, factual reading of some of the details of her death. Jennifer Shine’s biggest accomplishment here is letting those last moments from her final writing lack any sense of finality. The direction may have her going off into a shaft of light at the back of the sage, but Shine’s performance has an indomitable quality that makes it feel as though she’ll be back t talk more about her time in Gaza.

The Marquette University
Production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie,
which opened last night, is also being performed at 5pm and 8pm tonight. Admission is free.

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