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Territories

January 21, 2008

The old showbiz adage "leave 'em wanting more" is generally regarded as a positive thing. In the case of Betty Shamieh's new play Territories, which opened at The Magic Theatre on Saturday night, the feeling isn't always positive.

At only 65 minutes in length, this whirling dervish of a drama about the unnamed women who purportedly sparked off the Third Crusade of 1189 - 1192 captures the imagination just enough to make us thirst to know more about the triangular relationship between the famous Kurdish Muslim leader, Saladin, his sister Alia, and a French crusader by the name of Reginald of Chantillon. Shamieh takes the little-known character of Saladin's sister and makes her look larger than life. As played by the magnetic Nora el Samahy, Alia is a defiant character who stands up to all the men around her and follows her own course, even as it threatens to destroy not only her but her brother and her entire country. Rod Gnapp's ascetic crusader Reginald has to shade his eyes from Alia's brightness. He tries to possess her but ultimately fails. Meanwhile, Alfredo Narciso's Saladin, the best known character of the three, is reduced to a shadowy peripheral figure -- a man who has little control over his sister and the onrush or world events.

Director Jessica Heidt creates a nuanced, subtle production that hints deliciously and ambiguously at the turmoil going on inside the hearts and minds of the characters. The play gallops by in a series of vivid yet fast-changing images: here, a warrior raising a sword; there a woman dancing in a colorful gown. Territories is a sort of theatrical equivalent of the Arab women's burka -- so little is revealed and so much is hidden beneath the garment.

Shamieh's rebalancing of power is interesting because it reframes contemporary views of 12th century history. Suddenly we're looking at it through the eyes of a character who's legacy, as has been the fate of so many powerful women through time from the 5th century mathematician Hypatia to the Medieval nun/playwright Hrotsvitha, was left out of the history books. But the playwright's vision is also frustrating: too many questions are left unanswered in Shamieh's slip of a play. What's going on in Saladin's head? What makes Reginald fall in love with the "diseased" Muslim Alia? And why, for heaven's sake, does the play make constant reference to Alia's "condition" and yet present us with a character who comes across as healthier and more robust than both the Christian and Muslim armies put together?

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