Stage Review: “Sinners” — Theater that Matters

Questioning Joshua Sobol’s right to write about these kinds of intimate atrocities is to suggest that stages should never address these issues.

Sinners (The English Teacher) by Joshua Sobol. Directed by Brian Cox. Presented by Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/The Mirror Theater, in collaboration with New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance at TheatreLab@855, Boston University, Boston MA, through April 2.

A scene from the London production of "Sinners."

Arash Mokhtar and Nicole Ansari in a scene from the Hardwick, Vermont production of “Sinners.” Mokhtar was replaced by Ben Getz for the Boston staging.

By Ian Thal

A young bearded man, in a jacket and collared shirt unfurls a prayer rug on barren white soil. Rocks are piled all around him. Behind is a wall splattered with dried blood, the evidence of a firing squad – and a wheelbarrow. He prays. To his right is a black shroud. From beneath the shroud a woman’s voice is heard singing. She is buried in the earth up to her breasts. The stones the man has been gathering are meant for her execution.

She speaks, asking about sun and the sky. She knows the man, recognizing the sound of his footsteps. She begs him to pull the hood off of her, yet when he does, he is, for a long time silent. Layla (Nicole Ansari) is an English professor at the local university. Nur (Ben Getz) was her student, her lover, and sixteen years her junior, not much older than her son. She is to be executed for adultery. His punishment is to gather the stones to be used for her execution. The script identifies the location only as “any country where this could happen”, but references to a revolution, a more cosmopolitan pre-revolutionary era, the Indian Ocean, and British colonialism hints that this could be the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Playwright Joshua Sobol has created a remarkable character in Layla. Nearing death, she embraces her essential identity: an intellectual who defies a ruling regime that debases language and denies human rights; a lover in a society where one can be executed for loving; a woman who no longer has any patience for society’s patriarchal and misogynistic consciousness, and a human being who dared to create a private life in a totalitarian society. And when she cajoles Nur to take off his shirt as he works, to expose his chest, his back, his abdomen, to her longing gaze, we see something rarely seen on the stage — a woman unafraid of asserting her sexuality. Her vibrant erotic imagination simultaneously attracts and intimidates her lover; it threatens the men who rule their country. Nicole Ansari gives a powerful performance that matches a powerful role – made even more impressive by the fact that she has no use of her torso below the breasts – she carries her performance with her voice, her face, and the tilt and torsion of her neck and head.

Nur is a familiar literary archetype, a flawed man who has tasted freedom and true love in world that attempts to destroy both. When the weight of the state comes crashing down on him he questions (quite palpably in Getz’s performance) whether it was worth it. Did he choose this difficult path for himself? Is there someone else to blame? Most dramatists would made Nur their protagonist; instead, Sobol wisely turns Nur into Layla’s foil – her struggle is to remind him to cherish love, freedom, and life.

Given his own accomplished career, Brian Cox is, not surprisingly, an actor’s director. He draws intense performances from his cast. A particular conceit he makes use of in this production is having Nur constantly moving stones from one pile to another – a reflection of the sort of busy work authoritarians all over the world create just to show the absolute power they have over those they oppress.

This is not to say that Cox hasn’t recruited a fine team of designers to visualize the elemental world of Sinners. Ray Recht’s stark set design is menacing in its simplicity. Sound designer Mark Considine does not just bring up the sounds crows, helicopters, or crowds thirsty for violent spectacle, he has spaced the speakers in the auditorium so that we hear the birds and aircraft circle around us, sense the mob on the march. A dance illustrating a hypothetical reality, where Layla and Nur could have lived and loved in freedom — as if they had never been imprisoned in arranged marriages — is beautifully choreographed by Shahrockh Moshkin Ghalam and draws on the traditions of Persian classical dance with its helix-like arm movements. Composer Fared Shafinury’s score (which also draws on traditional musical motifs) features the santoor – the Persian hammer dulcimer.

Adherents of identity politics might question the right of Sobol, an Israeli Jew – a Zionist – to tell the story of a woman living and dying in any of the totalitarian theocracies of the Islamic world. But as Sobol asserts in a 2013 email interview conducted by The Arts Fuse editor-in-chief Bill Marx and myself:

I was shocked to read about the barbaric practice of stoning women to death. I was surprised by its widespread use and by the huge number of women who were stoned to death since the Islamist revolution in Iran and recently in some other countries. But what surprised and shocked me almost to the same extent was the indifference shown by civilized nations and by the liberal democratic western states to this crime against humanity.

In his theatrical work, Sobol has long pursued creating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians; Jews and Arabs. Yet some critics would suggest that Sinners promotes Islamophobia. The playwright, however, on March 24 at Temple Israel in Boston, unambiguously asserted his support for a two-state solution. But, not out of naivete, he noted that the fundamentally different view Israelis and Palestinians have on women’s rights (and human rights in general) make a singular state (either the annexation that the Israeli far-right favors or a utopian bi-national state that some on the left dream of) impossible at this point in time.

In fact, questioning Sobol’s right to write about these kinds of intimate atrocities is to suggest that stages should never address these issues. Could a theater company stage this play in “any country where this could happen”? Identity politics is not always the ally of human rights.

Regarding those who denounce Sobol without seeing his play, I will note that a friend of mine, a Pakistani expatriate, who accompanied me to see Sinners, was profoundly affected. Afterwards, she described family members, former classmates, and friends of the family who had been denounced and and even executed for blasphemy, for advocating for human rights, for violating the family honor. The oppressors are not always in the government but have the the tacit approval of authorities and the legal profession. Tribal courts, lone vigilantes with religious animus, even scandalized family members, are given free reign to use terror to enforce community standards. To her, Sinners felt like a truthful dramatization of what people she knows have experienced. In fact, it could be her fate should she return to the country of her birth – especially because she has since left Islam and become a Jew. Apostasy carries a death sentence in much of the Islamic world — not just in territory controlled by Isis.

And so, my friend, who has lived in the world reflected on the stage, called Sobol and the cast and crew of Sinners, “brave.”

This sort of bravery has become very rare in American theater. For far too long, artists and administrators have been arrogantly confident that words such as “truth” and “freedom” mean what they have always meant; confident that the only major political problem theater has left to tackle is that of the issue of equitable representation; confident that all we need to know about enlightenment could be found via staring at our own navels. Our theaters have blinded themselves to the world’s most lethal evils, and have looked for every excuse to ignore its victims. This is why the very fact that Sinners is playing anywhere in America matters.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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