“Chekhov’s gun,” as any first-year drama student desperate to justify that whole hot mess will tell you, is a literary or dramatic technique that holds that a rifle cleaned and mounted in the first act is going to be a lot less clean, and very much in use, by the third.
The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East opens with a gun. It’s not being cleaned or mounted, it’s simply flopping at the sides of the young Israeli soldier Yuval, the sort-of protagonist for the first of Naomi Wallace’s three vignettes on the Middle East. To be fair, it also opens with a broom, and that broom’s getting a fair amount of use. But we’re used to brooms. Brooms are benign. Semiautomatic rifles, less so.
And then, and not for the last time, The Fever Chart reminds us that we’re in a whole different neighborhood. This is Haifa. They’ve got plenty of guns there. More than they know what to do with. It’s the broom that’s alien. Who in hell would want to sweep the desert?
Guns, weapons and threats in general all play major parts in each of the self-contained stories, albeit in absentia. Death is the most powerful and prevalent underlying motif that ties each of these scenarios together, and yet it’s never there. It’s like death stepped out for a smoke. It’s been there, and it’ll be right back, but darnit, you just missed it. The violence that frames the whole narrative, if not the narrative’s entire reason for being, looms throughout, driving these tales of loss, but never making an appearance. The safety is on for Chekov’s gun. Nobody is going to die just yet.
Well, sort of. It’s complicated. But then again, that’s kinda the point.
“It’s complicated” is about the best you can really hope for when you’re dealing with a topic as jaggedly multifaceted as Israel—and make no dry bones about it, that’s exactly what Wallace wants to talk about. Other than the last piece (a shorter monologue set in Iraq that doesn’t quite mesh entirely with the rest of the work), the bulk of the material concerns that particular ideological minefield. Shrugging makes for piss-poor theater, leaving Wallace with either sanctimony or despair as pretty much her only avenues. In an inspired choice, Wallace elects both, crafting a compelling, if not entirely appealing cocktail that’s equal parts cynical present and hopeful future. It goes down a bit rough, but it’s hard not to appreciate what went into it.
This sort of material can be a bit unwieldy, and The Fever Chart makes no attempt not to be. Fortunately, director Elena Araoz does her damndest, and the pockets of preachy self-indulgence or intolerable cleverness are smoothed out as best the phenomenal performances can muster.
The acting is, across the board, superb, with special consideration to the Boston Conservatory’s Ken Baltin, who spans two major roles and handles them with just the right level of deftness and bombast. Newcomer Harry Hobbs plays a character that is, by all accounts, extremely punchable, but he does so quite well, and even manages a smidgen of pathos before departing—in what is Wallace’s only dalliance with economy of language. Ibrahim Miari, who makes the entire third vision with the most graceful display of prop comedy you will ever see, is a delight, but feels almost misplaced here.
At times both frustrating and poignant, paced and plodding, The Fever Chart reflects its subject matter well. There may be a few nicks here and there, but it’s a clear image, anchored in a steady hand.
THE FEVER CHART
THROUGH SUNDAY 12.19.10
CENTRAL SQUARE THEATRE
450 MASS. AVE.,
2PM, 8PM/$40 GENERAL