Myth may hold that martyrs will meet up in the afterlife with scores of willing virgins ( known as the Black Eyed). But in Betty Shamieh's new play, they'll also find that the spirits of the real women they left behind - whether they were loved, wronged, or killed - are also eager to meet up with them again.
In some uncertain corner of the afterlife, three Palestinian women, the vampy, kohl-eyed Delilah (Emily Swallow), the upright Tamam (Lameece Issaq) and the flighty, unnamed architect (Jeanine Serralles), join together to look for a rumored room that houses the dead martyrs. Scaling the back wall of the set and emerging onto the rose-colored stage, the three encounter the surly, snarky Aiesha (Aysan Celik). Tantalizing them with hints about the room, Aiesha pries out of each woman what martyr she's trying to find: Delilah's looking for Samson, whom she seduced to revenge her ungrateful people but came to love Tamam for her brother, who was forced to watch her raped by Crusaders hoping to get information from him and, most complexly, the architect for the man who killed her.
Shamieh's play is sprawling, digressive, didactic, and uneven, concerning itself not only with historical prejudices against Palestinians (and Arabs more generally), but also with sexism, assimilation, violence, and anything else that crosses her mind. Stylistically, the play's just as mixed, incorporating chanting, soliloquy, poetic repetition and even a (not always effective) Greek chorus. But behind all the chaos and inconsistency shines Shamieh's sensibility, never willing to settle for resolution, always seeking out a new perspective, a different angle. While this can be structurally fragmenting, it bespeaks an unwillingness to settle for easy answers that makes all her plays intriguing.
Each woman gets to deliver her own striking set piece, and among the generally strong ensemble cast, the surprising standout is Serralles, whose inarticulate character doesn't get her moment of glory till close to the play's end. As the mod, wrap-dressed, waif tells the tale of interviewing for a job with a famous architect and fantasizing a whole, unrewarding life as his second-fiddle wife, she bounds and twists across the stage, her rail-thin body distorted by her fears and neuroses. It's ironic that the architect is the only virgin among these women - in her vividly lived imaginings, she's the most experienced - and the wisest - of them all.