The intensity of 'Zealot,' plus big dreams within three musicals

Demosthenes Chrysan, Charlayne Woodard and Alan Smyth in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of "Zealot." Photo: Ben Horak/SCR.

More than any other region, the Middle East dominates international news in the American media. And the American theater has produced plenty of plays related to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet plays about American diplomatic efforts in the area are rare. They're probably considered inherently less exciting than plays about young Americans putting their lives on the line in combat. Now, however, with most Americans resistant to "boots on the ground" involvement, diplomacy may be where the action is - the dramatic action, as well as the real-life action.

Theresa Rebeck makes a compelling case that Middle Eastern diplomacy can create crackling drama in her new "Zealot," at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

It's set in the British consulate in Mecca during the Hajj (which, this year, occurred in early October, just before this production opened.) An American under-secretary of state (Charlayne Woodard) shows up in the office of the UK consul (Alan Smyth) to discuss rumors of a possible political demonstration during the Hajj.

Their conversation is interrupted when an agitated local Saudi official (Demosthenes Chrysan) shows up to confirm that a violent riot has indeed broken out in the Grand Mosque. It was sparked when a group of Muslim women removed their head scarves, presumably in protest of strict laws about women's dress and deportment.

One of these women (Nikki Massoud) arrives. She has been dispatched by the protesters to bear witness to what happened. The U.S. doesn't have a consulate in Mecca, but she is seeking sanctuary from the Americans via the UK consulate. Soon enough, her background is revealed - she's an Iranian Shiite Muslim who studied for a year in the U.S. and earnestly believes in its founding principles. In the rigorously Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, these credentials aren't exactly a point in her favor.

This fictional incident becomes a microcosmic examination of the foreign-policy debate between humanitarian concerns - represented here primarily by the American - and the British official's more pragmatic "none of our business" attitude. Rebeck adds extra notes of irony by making the under secretary a Muslim and by making the Brit an atheist - and by having the Brit warn the African American under secretary that unwarranted intervention in this situation could be seen as a "racist" disrespect for Saudi culture.

Don't let any of the above lead you to the conclusion that this play might be too arcane or too talky. Although the verbal fracas is indeed lively, the play also includes a poignant moment that consists almost entirely of an unexpected silent gesture between two characters. Director Marc Masterson and company make sure that the three major characters are somewhat fleshed out - without spelling out every biographical detail and motivation.

Rebeck is a prolific writer whose plays sometimes appear to have spun off an assembly line, but this is one of her best and most original scripts. It's certainly more provocative and successful than her "Poor Behavior," which opened at the Taper in 2011. I'll let the Middle East experts comment on its credibility, but it seems plausible enough in the theater. We probably shouldn't be surprised by our ability to be surprised by new developments in either the Middle East itself or the plays that are set there.


Some of the currently running musicals in the LA area right now have a lot in common.

Pippin-ds.jpgThe tour of "Pippin," currently at the Pantages, is about a young man who pursues grandiose dreams. Because he's a prince, he has the ability to literally pursue them - but not to make them succeed. The man at the heart of "Big Fish," in its West Coast premiere from Musical Theatre West, has dreams that are just as grandiose, but he is a traveling salesman, not a prince, so most of his dreams remain on the level of tall tales. Meanwhile, the teenage Melchior in Deaf West Theatre's revival of "Spring Awakening" continues to envision a better future despite a series of traumatic events within the stifling culture of his community in 19th-century Germany.

Both Pippin and Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" also have big-time father/son issues - Pippin is the son of a dominant father (Charlemagne), while Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" is the father of a skeptical son. Both of these characters are also drawn to the circus - but in this "Pippin," the circus connection is largely a concept brilliantly added to the material by director Diane Paulus, while in "Big Fish," Bloom's flirtation with the circus is written into John August's script, based on his screenplay, which was in turn adapted from a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Musical-theater companies should be encouraged to produce more than the greatest or latest hits, so I was rooting for the success of "Big Fish," at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. Its score is by the still-promising Andrew Lippa, and the material was staged on Broadway by Susan Stroman. But it falls short of expectations.

The big production numbers depicting Edward's fantasies are disproportionate to the small story and begin to feel like showy opportunities to extend the length of the show instead of vital and revealing moments. By the end, the conflicts and complexities within Edward's personality have been forcibly ironed out by the show's creators. I suspect that they did this out of concern that he might not be likable enough if they didn't furnish us with additional evidence of his overall rectitude.

By contrast, the creators of this "Pippin" didn't worry about such matters. And the evergreen conflict between big adventures and the quieter pleasures of hearth and home, which has always lurked within the Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson musical, has never been as clearly delineated as in Paulus's Tony-winning staging. The circus acts from Montreal's Gypsy Snider provide graphic evidence of the lure of adventure - not to mention a showstopping opportunity for Andrea Martin.

"Spring Awakening," photo by Tate Tullier.

The use of circus in this "Pippin" is an addition that's somewhat comparable to the use of ASL-signing deaf actors (as well as singing non-deaf actors) in Michael Arden's much more intimate revival of the Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik "Spring Awakening," for Deaf West Theatre and The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. "Spring Awakening" shares with "Pippin" the theme of frustrated, restless youth - and in the case of this "Spring Awakening" in particular, one of their key frustrations is their inability to communicate with the domineering culture. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Deaf West previously applied its distinctive musical-theater techniques to "Pippin" (at the Mark Taper Forum, in 2009). The gestural vigor of the current crop of Deaf West actors re-awakens "Spring Awakening."

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