Off-Broadway Review: THE VAGRANT TRILOGY (The Public)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 14, 2022

in Theater-New York


I imagine that some time back, the Theater Gods were sitting around talking. They had the idea to collaborate on a stupendous theatrical event. They thought to combine the best of film, stage and television production techniques with flawless acting, inspired direction, artful lighting and brilliant sound — all in support of a devastating, humorous, disturbing, engaging, intelligent and thoroughly human script written by an immensely talented writer. Not sure how many productions became manifest due to this godly maneuvering, but The Vagrant Trilogy by Mona Mansour at The Public Theater is certainly one of them.

Hadi Tabbal

The Public’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis writes in his program notes, “…Mona has created a powerful and resonant piece about the Palestinian people, not by attacking the issue politically, but writing about the lived experience…”  His description is exactly what this brilliant show is — though due to its subject matter, the specter of politics is never far away. In focusing on the life and family of the fictional Palestinian scholar Adham, Mansour’s three-act work underscores the adage that the political is personal. True, she does not debate the conflict in the Middle East directly. Her characters are not stand-ins for differing viewpoints but living, breathing human beings. Her focus is the human cost of political conflict, specifically the Palestinian people. This living history lesson is also theater at its very best — striking the emotional and physical distress common to every human being. Never dry or pedantic, Mansour’s dramatization of a Palestinian family serves as stark reminder that it is the regular people who suffer most in these conflicts, regardless of intention or location.

Rudy Roushdi, Nadine Malouf, Hadi Tabbal, Tala Ashe, and Osh Ashruf

It’s 1967 when we meet a young professor named Adham, sitting on a hill above his town in Palestine. He was born in a refugee camp but left with his mother while still very young. His mother, a very determined and overbearing woman, had to leave her other son and husband behind in order to depart with Adham. The young scholar is soon approached by a beautiful, young, female student (not one of his) named Abir. Though she is from a lower social class than Adham, Abir is extremely smart and perceptive. From this not so chance meeting (she reveals that she followed him up there) romance blooms and they shortly marry — much to his mother’s disapproval.

Circumstances soon take the young couple to London where Adham, a scholar of English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is slated to present on Wordsworth’s poem Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The poem’s themes of childhood memories and present vs. past identity align with Adham’s own self-doubting internal struggles. He surely loves his Palestinian heritage yet is equally burdened by it. After a rough rehearsal, his presentation to an audience of mostly European scholars is a resounding success. Now on the verge of creating an exciting new life in the West, the young couple gets word of the Israeli attack on the Egyptian Air Force that started the Six Day War. Abir, not quite as enamored of the West as Adham, wants to immediately return to family in Palestine. Adham wants to stay. The first act ends with Abir leaving him in London. The second act picks up in 1982 with Adham’s life in Britain firmly established. The third act picks up in 2003, recounting what would have happened had Adham returned to Palestine with Abir in 1967.

Tala Ashe and Hadi Tabbal

To say the acting is good is a major understatement. These artists are not so much acting as inhabiting. Every character feels like a real person. As the troubled scholar Adham, Hadi Tabbal is the rock solid center and never has a false moment. His is a multi-layered, revelatory, gut-punching performance. As Abir, Tala Ashe dazzles in her trajectory from an idealistic young peasant girl to a Westernized yet deeply Palestinian woman in her prime to a middle-aged matron, hardened but not completely discouraged by her life in a refugee camp. The remaining actors, Osh Ashruf, Ramsey Faragallah, Rudy Roushdi  and Nadine Malouff all play multiple roles and all shine in whatever character they are portraying. In particular, Ms. Malouff transforms so completely from Adham’s domineering, middle-aged mother to a blonde, bubbly, London party girl that she is halfway through the party scene before one realizes she is the same actress.

Hadi Tabbal and Ramsey Faragallah

Allen Moyer (sets), Reza Behjat (lights), Greg Emtaz (video), and Tye Hunt Fitzgerald and Sinan Refik Zafar (sound) are so completely unified that they are an achievement unto themselves. In one of many impressive sequences, Adham walks the hallowed halls of London’s University College, psyching himself up for his impending speech. What would be a long tracking shot on film is ingeniously accomplished onstage with the same fluid movement and a sense of distance. Yet for all the technical expertise on display, the work of these artists is firmly in service of the play and seamlessly integrated into the production.

Rudy Roushdi, Hadi Tabbal, and Tala Ashe

Mark Wing-Davey’s direction is, in a word, excellent. For as many shifts in location, style, writing, focus and story that this piece incorporates, Wing-Davey’s direction is never on the forefront. He strongly, and somehow invisibly, guides the proceedings so that the audience can concentrate on the characters and their stories. His ensemble scenes at the party and in the refugee camp are so well orchestrated that the boundaries between stage and audience blur. One is left feeling that they are actually with these characters. Yet for all the over-lapping dialogue, the scenes are never muddled and we clearly receive what is needed to comprehend the play. Monsour has an astounding ability to repeatedly go from the micro to the macro in her writing and focus, bouncing between the personal and the political yet always from the human perspective. This three-hour play, that is as much about leaving home as returning to it, does not feel that long in actual experience. This is largely due to Monsour’s depth of feeling about the human condition.

Hadi Tabbal

Whatever your views on the struggle between Palestine and Israel, The Vagrant Trilogy is worth a look. There is no outright demonization –just one family’s experience of this situation. Which reminds us that at the end of the day, we are all equally human and we all suffer. Which may be the most needed reminder of all.

Hadi Tabbal

photos by Joan Marcus

Tala Ashe and Hadi Tabbal

The Vagrant Trilogy
The Public Theater (LuEsther Hall), 425 Lafayette Street
Wed-Sat at 7; Sat and Sun at 1; Tues at 7 (May 3 & 10)
ends on May 8, 2022 EXTENDED to May 22, 2022
for tickets, call 212.967.7555 or visit The Public

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