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Food and Fadwa
By Elyse Sommer
The volatile West Bank location with its check points, curfews and long history of hostilities within a small country inevitably adds a strong and geographically specific political flavor to this collaboration by Noor Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop — especially since an unanticipated and lengthy curfew ratchets up the familial tensions resulting from an unhappy romance and a father with dementia. Despite dialogue full of often detailed references to the brutal realities of the trials and tribulations of life under occupation this is essentially a very human family drama to which people
of all faiths and backgrounds can relate. The characters, especially the fodd loving Fadwa, are well developed and the production benefits from a dramatic structure that makes it fun and funny as well as moving.
It is co-author Lameece Isaaq's interest in cooking that led to the long journey from idea for a comic sketch to the full-fledged play now having its world premiere at NYTW in the East Village. Isaaq asked Jacob Kader to film her in her submission for a "Be the Next Food Network Star" competition. Though Isaaq didn't make the cut in the contest, she and Kader turned her tryout into a piece for the 2005 New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
That initial sketch evolved into Food and Fadwa with the the failed network cooking star now starring as the central character — and doing with humor and great emotional resonance. While the original piece has obviously grown and changed a lot, it's still there to give Food and Fadwa a delightful introductory monologue for each of the three acts' four scenes, staged with a single intermission an hour into the play.
Issaq's Fadwa is at the counter of the kitchen that dominates the Faranesh home even before the lights dim for the opening scene. It doesn't take long to realize that Fadwa is making her kitchen chores more fun by pretending to be the hostess of that imaginary TV show which , like the play at NYTW, is called Food and Fadwa.
Fadwa's how-to demonstrations of the pre-wedding party fare include tidbits about her own and other characters' lives as well as about the dishes. Thus we learn that Baba Ghanoush, a popular eggplant appetizer, means “spoiled old daddy” because its creator mashed up mash up eggplant to feed her to her old and toothless father. Her reminder not to forget the important final ingredient, extra virgin olive oil links that oil to her own virginity.
As fluidly directed by Shana Gold, the pretend TV cooking show structure works extremely well . The entrances and exits of family members make for smooth transitions between the make-believe and real. As we find ourselves adapting to the merging of the imagined cooking show scenes and the actual events, so the Faranesh family members, at least the ones who haven't emigrated to America, have adapted themselves to the lengthy stops at ever increasing checkpoints. They complain and make sarcastic comments about this aspect of their lives but it's a laid back resignation. On the other hand, Hayat Johnson (Heather Raffo), who's been an American for year, is furious about even a 15-minute delay when she arrived for her cousin's wedding. She's too shocked by her first look at the separation wall erected since she left to joke about it as Emir does.
While Isaaq is the the pivotal character in the 7-member cast, the acting all around is excellent. Maha Chehlaoui is Fadwa's pretty and accomplished younger sister Dalal (She's a music teacher embarking on PhD studies in America. Arien Moyayed who gave such a stellar performance in last year's Broadway production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is again a standout, as Dalal's charismatic groom. Haaz Sleiman, with whose work I'm not familiar, is also appealing as Youssif, Emir's older brother and the man Fawda loves. His return visit to the West Bank for the wedding brings both joy and pain. Laith Nakli as Fadwa and Dalal's father expertly segues between being a befuddled Alzheimer victim and, during the fantasy scenes, as the still vibrant farmer before he lost most of his olive farm and his beloved wife.
Heather Raffo, who made a strong impression on the downtown theater scene with her own solo play Seven Parts of Desire brings a strong presence to the role of Hayat, the cousin who is actually living the sort of life which Fadwa's commitment to her ailing father can only fantasize about. She is a highly reputed chef and owns the restaurant where she's made Yousif the manager. No wonder Fadwa has a less than stand-up-and-cheer feelings about Hayat's reputation made with recipes inauthentically adapted for maxiumum popularity and the restaurant that has given her proximity to Yousif. . Kathryn Kates has the somewhat unrewarding role of Baba's widowed sister who lives next door. She seems written into the script to fill out the familial picture and amuse with her addiction telephone chattering, smoking and Arab Idol.
The designers do everything they should to enhance the look and sound of this production. Andromache Chalfant has has put a dining area to one side of the front and center kitchen (where during one festive meal, Emir uses dollops of food to illustrate the check point dotted lay of the land), and a living room at the other side. Chalfant's set also lets us see just enough of the exterior to give us a feel of its grimness. Japhy Weideman's lovely lighting is pure poetry during one of the fantasy scenes during which Baba explains his passion for olives. Adding immeasurably throughout is the original music by sound designer Jane Shaw and Amir ElSaffar & George Ziadeh.
As you didn't have to be Greek to enjoy My Big Greek Wedding, you don't have to be Arab to root for everyone in this funny, sad and touching Palestinian Wedding play. Just don't expect Fadwa to pass around samples of hummus or Baba Ganush.
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