Zealot Theatre Review – SCR Brings a Commanding “Zealot” to Southern California

A battle of wills between Edgar (Alan Smyth) and Ann (Charlayne Woodard)

(Costa Mesa, CA) October, 2014 – There is a disease that has appeared, mutated, and spread throughout the world with frightening speed, a disease that is perhaps to be considered deadlier than Ebola: Selective cultural blindness, especially when it comes to fundamentalist Islamic beliefs and their treatment of women. Examples of this would be how the media and bureaucracies of diverse countries would show outrage over the corrupt and murderous regimes of Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s al-Assad and yet would remain noticeably quiet when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, two entities that are more radical and dangerous on a global scale, especially with the genocide of Christians in Iraq, making these two groups the Third Reich of the 21st century.  Politicians rant about the “war on women,” and yet they seem silent when women are sexually abused under these Islamic laws in the Middle East by both “moderate” and radical Muslims. Is it silence…or is it political correctness and fear of “offending” another culture? Perhaps it is both.

 

Very few voices bring this injustice against women out in the open. One of those voices comes from the talented best-selling author Joy Brighton—a self-described New York liberal, who graphically illustrates this brutality in her book, “Sharia-ism is Here: The Battle to Control Women; and Everyone Else,” which exposes how a huge number of Islamic movements are trying to get Sharia Law recognized and honored by democratic countries around the world, a law which condones the restriction of a woman’s freedom of speech, the avocation of violence against wives by their husbands,  and the death penalty against homosexuals. And after the world premiere of South Coast Repertory’s production of “Zealot,” another voice has just been heard: “Zealot’s” creator and Broadway playwright Theresa Rebeck, who unflinchingly paints a vibrant portrait of how the Islamic culture abuses and murders women under archaic laws, and how various democratic bureaucracies are very much useless when it comes to combating this disease due to fear. Rebeck’s writing, Marc Masterson’s direction and the potent acting by the stars exposes grave injustices from a moral and political standpoint.  

Usama (Demosthenes Chrysan, center) describes what happens as Yousef (Adam El-Sharkawi, left) and Edgar (Alan Smyth) listen

It is the first day of the Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest of Islamic pilgrimages. British consul Edgar (Alan Smyth) dreads meeting American undersecretary Ann (Charlayne Woodard) regarding rumors of a protest that might occur during this holy time. Both of their fears are justified as a peaceful protest does occur where a large number of women break Islamic law by baring their heads during their prayers inside the mosque, resulting in the men expressing this “blasphemy” by killing most of them with their bare hands. The Saudi Arabian representative Usama (Demosthenes Chrysan) shares with both bureaucrats his despair regarding the violence, as well as pleading that his people are not radical murderers. But his tone violently changes 180 degrees when Iranian student Marina (Nikki Massoud) arrives at the embassy and asks Ann for sanctuary as she reveals herself as a witness to what happened during the massacre. And when Usama threatens an international incident if both representatives don’t turn Marina over for arrest (which would no doubt result in her execution), a battle of wills occurs regarding what can be done and what is being ignored.

Edgar (Alan Smyth) lays down the facts to Marina (Nikki Massoud, left) as Ann (Charlayne Woodard) watches

Rebeck’s powerful pen and Masterson’s masterful direction are a perfect combination for the pacing and tone of this story. Masterson, as always, seems to bring more out of his artists through the smooth blocking and through his deft guidance regarding the emotional directions the actors make. Rebeck’s dynamic dialogue seems to serve as lightning bolts from all cast members. Although it does get slightly melodramatic and saccharine a couple of times when characters stress the importance and desire to becoming “citizens of the world,” Rebeck doesn’t flinch at the outrage against how women are abused under Muslim laws and how the fear and apathy of bureaucracies are just as criminal. It would have been interesting if Rebeck had incorporated into "Zealot" the dangers of Sharia Law being accepted in democratic countries; its omission is extremely apparent and well needed for this topic. Hopefully, her incredible talents as a playwright will guide her towards that specific danger in a future work; it’s essential that it, too, is brought out in the open, as well as the other themes shown in “Zealot.”   

Marina (Nikki Massoud) shares with Ann (Charlayne Woodward)

All of the stars shine in their own right at their own perfect moments. Smyth’s Edgar is the epitome of slimy and sexist politics. But the brilliant move that Smyth does with his character is much of the humorous parts of the play come from his dialogue. Whether what he says is true or clearly wrong, the wit and humor of the character brings much needed levity to the story. Smyth also reveals a sliver of empathy during his moments with Massoud’s Marina and at the very end of the play, revealing not a monster, but a man whose optimism is burnt out by the horrors of politics. Woodward’s Ann is a fantastic foil for Smyth. In the beginning, Woodward, whose character is Muslim as well,  exudes the placating, apologetic tone that her department (and administration) seems to show for any political incident that comes about and involves the United States. However, when she meets Marina, she throws that government protocol out the window and fights both Usama and Edgar for Marina’s life. Her sparring with Smyth ignites the stage, which also illustrates the impotency that both governments possess when it comes to fighting for an innocent life.

 

Frighteningly effective is Chrysan’s Usama, who in the beginning appears to be a moderate Muslim who wants peace and wants to show his western “friends” that not all Islamics are suicidal bombers. But when Marina appears, his transformation into pure evil is a vision to behold, revealing the fact that he is just as fanatical as his radical cousins. But Massoud’s Marina is a true revelation, combining elements of courage, compassion and faith. Rebeck once accurately compared Marina to Joan of Arc. But Marina is a symbol for all the victims who are not only persecuted by tyranny, but also ignored by “diplomats,” people like Iranian American pastor Saeed Abedini, who is a prisoner in Iran for being a Christian; Dr. Shakil Afridi, the man who gave the location of Osama Bin Laden to the US, is now imprisoned in Pakistan for 33 years; and Marine veteran Andrew P. Tahmooressi, who is falsely imprisoned in Mexico. The supporters of all three are asking for help. But like Marina in “Zealot,” their cries for help are being ignored.

 

South Coast Repertory is known for debuting groundbreaking work that somehow catches fire on a national or even global scale. No doubt, Theresa Rebeck’sZealot” will not only be another fantastic facet of the theatre’s profound artistic mosaic, it will bring attention to those women around the world who are victimized by these Islamic laws. And hopefully, Rebeck’s play will inspire more of her fellow artists to create more stories like “Zealot,” giving voices to those who demand, and deserve, to be heard.

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.

 

Zealot opened October 17 - November 16, 2014

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive,

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson

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