Mona Mansour’s The Vagrant Trilogy, three one-acts that close Mosaic’s third season, is an engaging, troubling and eye-opening tale of displacement and dispossession on a scale that is both deeply personal and political.
Two of the three plays, all commissioned and developed by the Public Theatre, have had previous individual productions but this is the first time they’ve been presented as a unit. They follow the journey of Adham, a young Palestinian scholar of English literature, as he and his new wife Abir come to London in 1967 to present a paper on Wordsworth. But when the Six Day War breaks out and their plans to return home are indefinitely delayed, he is offered a teaching position that would allow him to stay. Abir is horrified at his turning his back on his family (and expecting her to do likewise), and presents an ultimatum: she’s going back, and he can either go back with her or stay in London.
The first play, The Hour of Feeling, serves as the introduction to the protagonist and his wife, and sets up his big choice: does he stay or go? But more than that, it establishes the numerous conflicts at play internally and externally; to return home is to attempt to protect and shield his family, to stand with his fellows, but also would be to effectively quash his ambitions and dreams, everything he’s worked and strived for. He also has to confront his perceptions of his own mediocrity, comparing himself against his far more confident, rooted (and white) colleagues.
The Vagrant Trilogy
closes July 1, 2018
Details and tickets
The play’s innovative structural conceit is that second and third plays are not narratively sequential; one is his life if he stayed in London, the other is his life if he returned home. In The Vagrant, set fifteen years later, Adham is settled in London yet unsettled; up for tenure at the University, but rootless, divorced but not detached from Abir, his mother hovering over him (it’s unclear if she’s physically there or a figure of his imagination), and occasionally getting faint, static-laden phone calls from his brother back home. A recent IRA bombing is fresh on everyone’s mind, and when Adham doesn’t repudiate it with the same knee-jerk vehemence of his English colleagues, his career, and the choice he made to follow it, become untenable.
In Urge For Going, set in a Lebanese refugee camp, it’s 2003. Adham is a broken man at sixty, living in a cramped structure made of chain link, worn blue tarps, and scrap wood with Abir, their young adult son Jul (brain-damaged after a police altercation) and teenage daughter Jamila, and his brother and brother in law. Jamila has the opportunity to escape the camp, the only home she’s ever known, if she is able to ace the baccalaureate test, while the others have resigned themselves to live out their lives while rockets periodically fly overhead in both directions. Adham’s depression has effectively neutralized him, and seeing his own squandered potential in Jamila simultaneously revives and worsens him.
Whereas director Mark Wing-Davey gives the first two pieces a fast pace with episodic staccato scenes that jump from location to location – most of the set pieces are on wheels, effectively evoking Adham’s rootlessness – the third is claustrophobic, tense, and comparatively motionless. Along with Luciana Stecconi’s modular set and Paul Deziel’s intricate projections, the unified approach is startlingly effective.
As Adham, Hadi Tabbal is quite moving in portraying a man never comfortable in his own skin, never rooted, never at home. Dina Soltan, as Abir, has a feisty and engaging temperament; her strongest moments are in the scenes in Hour of Feeling where she fights for her dignity and standing while speaking very little English, and in Urge where she is effectively the head of the family and steps in when Adham’s inertia nearly costs Jamila her future. Her scene with Nora Achrati where they bond over Julie Christie and “To Sir With Love” (the reference, a film about a black teacher in a gritty East London school, is canny) is vibrant.
The rest of the ensemble also are very effective in their multiple roles, Michael Kramer’s various professors, Nora Achrati sparkling as a socialite, Adham’s tough-love mother, and daughter Jamila. Shpend Xani is especially moving as Adham’s son, as is Elan Zafir both as a smug, privileged lecturer and Adham’s brooding brother.
Perhaps Mansour does herself a disservice by billing this as three separate one-act plays since they’re following the same protagonist along a continuous narrative. Despite their developmental pedigree as standalone one-acts, and their individual narrative arcs, I’m not convinced that the evening’s impact would be reduced with some pruning/tightening and re-branding as a single three-act play.
The plays take on additional resonance beyond the politics of the Middle East as we observe this past weeks’ headlines on the Mexican border and consider, as Mansour describes, the deep cost of psychic displacement.
The Vagrant Trilogy (The Hour of Feeling, The Vagrant, Urge For Going) by Mona Mansour, directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Cast: Hadi Tabbal, Nora Achrati, Michael Kramer, Dina Soltan, Shpend Xani, Elan Zafir. Associate Director: Sarah Blush. Set Design: Luciana Stecconi. Lighting Design: Reza Behjat. Costume Design: Ivania Stack. Sound Design: David Lamont Wilson. Projections: Paul Deziel. Props: Michelle Elwyn. Dramaturg: Jesse Alick. Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Review by John Geoffrion.
[small world alert: back in the day, I acted in two productions directed by Michael Kramer]