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Life-and-Death Drama 

Theater Preview: Rachel

The bulldozer is a common piece of construction equipment, unlikely to provoke an emotional response. Until one learns about the life, and death, of Rachel Corrie. Then the word "bulldozer" may bring to mind the senseless cycle of violence in the Middle East, the insoluble conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the idealistic 23-year-old American woman who tried to stand up for what she believed. And whose body was crushed, like the walls of the Palestinian homes she was trying to shield, beneath a Caterpillar D-9 operated by the Israeli Defense Forces.

In the grim stream of headlines from that deadly region, Corrie's story might have receded after a short flash of international attention. The young woman from Olympia, Washington, joined the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led non-violent-resistance organization, and was killed on March 16, 2003, in Rafah, Gaza. Days later, the United States invaded Iraq. And so, even though the death of a U.S. citizen at the hands of Israeli soldiers was shocking, the news cycle soon focused elsewhere. Two years later, her parents' lawsuit against the Caterpillar company earned another blip of media notice, but also some derision that lumped the suit with frivolous liability litigation such as the McDonald's hot-coffee case.

Surprisingly, however, the medium of theater has kept Rachel in the spotlight. My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a 2005 play based on her writings, met with sold-out houses and critical acclaim in London, and is running this month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. But the one-woman show has become a lightning rod for controversy in the United States, where it has not yet been staged. The saga of its on-again, off-again production status in New York created a transatlantic trail of accusations and acrimony.

Not surprisingly, Vermont theater maverick Bill Blachly was eager to stage the play. Every summer the Unadilla Theatre's converted sheep barn in East Calais is home to both high-spirited Gilbert & Sullivan and wrenching dramas about politically charged topics such as race or war. When Blachly's quest for the rights to produce My Name Is Rachel Corrie was stymied, he decided to present his own adaptation of her words, which he is calling simply Rachel. "I thought, 'Well, this is too important,'" he says. "We gotta do this."

Despite consistently programming edgy, topical works, Blachly strenuously downplays connections between plays and politics. "I'm primarily interested in doing theater that grabs people. What's the old rule? Either send 'em out crying or laughing, but don't send 'em out any other way."

Unadilla's artistic director claims to see theater "as an art form, not an idea forum." Then why choose the writings of a woman who ended up in a geopolitical crucible? "I think the play is a wonderful story, in the words of a girl who is trying to find meaning," Blachly says.

And Rachel Corrie loved words. She wrote prolifically from the time she was very young -- journals, letters, emails. Not long after she died, her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, turned over 184 pages of material to British actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner. Rachel's death had become politicized -- a martyr to the Palestinians, a traitor to some pro-Israeli Americans, and an example of American naïveté to many Israelis. The Internet's unlimited capacity for polemics and rumor mongering had transformed the Corries' child into a Hydra-headed icon.

In developing the play for the Royal Court Theatre, the British duo "wanted to uncover the young woman behind the political symbol, beyond her death," Viner wrote in an afterword to the published edition. Rickman said, "We were never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalize her, but we also needed to face the fact that she'd been demonized. We wanted to paint a balanced portrait."

Viner added, "We hoped to find out what made Rachel Corrie different from the stereotype of today's consumerist, depoliticized youth."

Ironically, consumer pressures and politics may have derailed the play's U.S. premiere. The Royal Court production was set to transfer to the New York Theater Workshop stage in March 2006, but the Manhattan company yanked it from the schedule just a few weeks before opening night. NYTW Artistic Director James Nicola claimed it was merely postponed. To different media outlets, he embroidered a confusing list of excuses, including Ariel Sharon's illness, Palestine's election of Hamas, and the "marketing and contextualizing challenge" the play posed.

The Royal Court quickly labeled the postponement a cancellation. A transatlantic firestorm erupted, with theatrical heavyweights such as Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner and Vanessa Redgrave weighing in. Redgrave, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians, called it "an act of catastrophic cowardice . . . blacklisting a dead girl and her diaries." Rickman, who directed in London and was scheduled to direct in New York, accused the NYTW of succumbing to "censorship born out of fear."

Katharine Viner wrote a scathing Los Angeles Times editorial, titled "A Message Crushed Again." "By its own admission the theater's management had caved in to political pressure," she said. "Three years after being silenced for good, Rachel was to be censored for political reasons."

Dark speculation swirled. Nicola admitted to consulting Jewish groups but not Arab-American ones. His plan for "contextualizing" the play included commissioning a companion piece about Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombs. The Nation reported that a NYTW marketing staffer told the Royal Court's international director that "mollifying the Jewish community" was a major concern. In a radio interview, Nicola repeated one of the most scurrilous Internet slanders circulating about Corrie: that she was a member of Hamas.

Her parents were devastated. On the night the play was to have opened, Craig Corrie said, "It seems now we have this cacophony of sound around Rachel's words . . . Let our daughter talk for herself." Since the performance of the play was in limbo -- and the rights to do so were controlled by the Royal Court -- the Corries encouraged alternative presentations of Rachel's words.

*******

Bill Blachly's initial discussions with the Royal Court this spring led him to believe that he would have no problem securing the rights to put on My Name Is Rachel Corrie at Unadilla. "At that time, it was not going to be shown in New York," he says. But in late June, a different New York venue, the Minetta Lane Theater, scheduled a short, 48-performance run opening in October. A lawyer subsequently informed Blachly that Unadilla could not have the rights. He guesses it was so that the New York production can be called the U.S. premiere.

So Blachly set about rejiggering the material that his actress -- Emily Graves, 26, of Montpelier -- had been rehearsing for months. "I frankly don't see any reason why anybody can't take what I assume is pretty public material -- especially if Craig Corrie wants this stuff disseminated and hasn't put any barriers in the way of people using it in whatever way they want," he says. "All the stuff that we're using is on the Internet."

After a morning rehearsal of the new Rachel, Blachly, Graves and longtime Unadilla supporter Alice Blachly -- who also happens to be Bill's ex-wife -- sit around a picnic table outside the theater and discuss Rachel, the play and the controversial issues. It's a postcard-perfect Vermont summer afternoon; the breeze is refreshingly crisp, the vegetation brilliant green. The problems of New York and London, let alone Palestine, seem surreally distant.

Yet the women talk passionately about the issues. Seemingly in agreement with their comments, the wiry, white-haired director nods and smiles. But Blachly is loathe to articulate the issues himself. Art for art's sake is his story, and he's sticking to it. "I have trouble analyzing things," Blachly claims. "I just think this thing speaks for itself."

Graves has a fascinating take on why Corrie's tale played without incident in the U.K. but ignited a furor in the U.S. "I think maybe it's the proximity that makes it more complicated, because the closer you get to the place where the people grew up, the more other people might be afraid that this person represents them," she muses. "And they don't want to be spoken for in that way." In the frenzied press coverage of the New York flap, no one has offered this clear-headed insight.

Rachel Corrie herself delineated one of the stickiest, though largely unspoken, issues that came to surround her play: "The scariest thing for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic."

Graves doesn't fear being perceived as anti-Semitic for taking on Rachel's story. "You're always going to have the risk of somebody who knows more than you about this poking holes in what you're doing. But I don't think that's a reason to not do it," she says. "But it's a good excuse to learn.

"And saying 'anti-Semitism' . . . stops the conversation," Graves points out. "And so it's a disservice" to meaningful dialogue and understanding. Alice Blachly finds the anti-Semitic label "insulting" to the intelligence of audience members. "You mean we can't tell the difference between the policies of Israel and an anti-Jewish individual?" she asks.

Graves brings up an intriguing parallel between Corrie's early writings and those of Anne Frank. Both young diarists shared protean optimism, restless energy and a desire to take on the world. Corrie was a compulsive list maker. On one of her early lists of "What I have," she wrote: "Hope."

But the wanton destruction and death she witnessed in Gaza took its toll. A few days before she died, Corrie emailed her mother that she was beginning to question her "fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature." With Anne Frank, Graves notes, "You never get the opportunity to see that change." Frank's diary ends with her removal to the concentration camp, where she perished at age 15. "We get to see Rachel at a later part of her life. I don't know if it's just inevitable that young kids become disillusioned when they confront things like this," Graves muses.

At 82, Bill Blachly is far more certain. "If you live long enough, you're going to be disillusioned," he says. "I'm of an age when I remember when young people were rushing off to Spain to join the Loyalists . . . without really knowing very much about it. And, of course, maybe we will find the same disillusionment with the Palestinians."

Today Anne Frank's diary is part of the educational canon about World War II. "But doesn't Rachel have a right to have her voice heard, just as Anne Frank had a right to have her voice heard?" Alice Blachly asks. "To me this is like Anne Frank, and the trouble is, we can't see it because of this terrific political situation that we have here."

Although it's hard to block out the horrific image of how Corrie died, the play is an opportunity to "enjoy Rachel," suggests Graves. "She is really wry, and she's so insightful, and she's really precocious."

Rachel Corrie was an activist, but she was also a teen who plotted how to bump into her ex-boyfriend "accidentally" while looking fabulous; a daughter who placated her mom and cajoled her dad; a young girl who, from her messy bedroom, made plans to conquer the world. In the end, maybe she has.

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