‘Owl Girl’ performed for the first time at the U

- Courtesy of Alexandra Harbold

– Courtesy of Alexandra Harbold

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- Courtesy of Alexandra Harbold
– Courtesy of Alexandra Harbold

From Oct. 24 through Nov. 2, the U’s Babcock Theatre is offering a nuanced and magical perspective of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in The Owl Girl.

Originally titled Parable, The Owl Girl shows the turbulence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the metaphor of an Israeli and a Palestinian family who own the keys to the same house, a young girl who hasn’t aged in the five years that her family has been exiled, and the transformation of a girl into an owl.

Director Alexandra Harbold said she thinks “it’s not anything people expect when they hear it’s a play about Israel and Palestine…And the fact there’s so much impossible stuff in the play, well it sort of jumps you into the history in a different way. The play is quite brilliant and it is so unexpected and it’s not a political drama, and yet politics are in its lifeblood.”

Playwright Monica Raymond got the idea from when she was doing work for Occupied Territories, a compilation of short works about the Middle East where her short play Hijab was performed. She said that although she is ethnically Jewish and grew up in a Jewish household, she hadn’t thought much about the conflicts in the Middle East before this project. It was during her work for this project that she got the idea for The Owl Girl.

“In the course of doing the work that I did for that project I met David Dolev, an Israeli who was running Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups, and he told me about these families in the West Bank who still had the keys to their old houses from when they had lived in Jerusalem,” Raymond said.
Raymond said that she hadn’t intended to write a magical play, “Close to the beginning, a character who is part of the family living in exile comes back to visit his old house. He sneaks in and encounters the daughter of the family who is living there now. He starts talking about his family and how the left and he says ‘I have a younger sister and since we left she hasn’t grown at all.’ She just stays thirteen. In playwriting, you’re kind of transcribing from your characters and I was surprised because I thought I was writing a realistic play and all of a sudden there was a girl who had stayed the same for years,” Raymond said.
Since Raymond finished her play it has been a part of many readings and workshops, but the U’s performance will be the first time it will actually be performed.
“It has some hard scenes for a theatre company. Like it has flying, a house being destroyed, somebody going from thirteen to eighteen in one scene and I’m curious to see what it’s going to be like,” Raymond said.
Raymond said that while unintentional, the magical nature of the play is something that will make people unfamiliar with the conflict more comfortable with thinking and talking about it.
“In the Middle East and especially around Palestine, it seems like it’s a conflict that keeps repeating, like a record stuck in a groove, and I think that by allowing magic and mystery it allows us to create some mental space to see things differently and see what might be possible,” Raymond said.
The play may seem like a commentary on the recent violence between Hamas and the Israeli government that left over 2,200 people dead, most of the Palestinian civilians, but the play was written years before it and the U has been invested in performing the play since spring. But the violence left its mark on the approach to the play and the perception of it.
“It certainly changed the way we approached the play. There was a stasis prior to the summer and as soon as the crisis became ever-apparent, it meant we had to find a different threshold into the play and we framed the play differently than we would have done before,” Harbold said.
Raymond said the violence tempered her hopes for a possibility for peace, “It’s made me have a little less sense of possibility—the destruction of Gaza and the revelations of the Hamas tunnels just makes hostility seem profoundly entrenched. The play does not have a saccharine ending, but it has an ending with some possibility for building alliances across differences. Which I still believe is possible. I am hoping that my play doesn’t seem like it’s ignoring the reality of the situation.”
Manar Al-shatarat, a Palestinian graduate student in world languages who acted as an advisor for the play said she doesn’t know if the play can reflect the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I know that as outsiders that the only thing they can think of is to bring the idea of peace—people they are different, they don’t like each other but they can coexist and can forget about the past and keep going. It’s nice, in a play and in fiction, but it’s not the real thing on the ground.”
Al-shatarat said despite her reservations, she is glad the U is doing this play and that the play looks at both sides of the issue, not just the Israeli side. “It’s a good idea to touch such kinds of topics, especially the Palestinian cause is really significant and sensitive. I liked that they were open to improve the performance based on my experience and my perspective and that they were concerned to know more about it from someone who has a different experience from what they have.”
Harbold and her cast reached out to numerous advisors for their play in order to portay the conflict in as nuanced and accurate way as they can. “We have an owl expert and one of our student’s Arabic teachers [Manar] came and spoke to our class and we’re going to be talking with Riva Goldsmith who is Israeli when she gets back from Israel later this month and we have Beth Kerensky who is a Jewish advisor who’s acting as an advisor to the show. We’ve also done a lot of dramaturgical work as a company—watching films and reading a lot of articles, tracking a conversation for peace and it’s become incredibly personal for us,” Harbold said.
One of the main goals of Raymond and Harbold is to change the way people talk about the conflict.
“I would love it if people just keep talking about the play or the conflict or what they hear in the news gets reframed by the fact that they’ve seen the play. That it makes them more curious and maybe opens up a crack in what they think they know and understand, at least that’s what it did with me,” Harbold said.
Al-shatarat said she hopes the play starts getting people aware of the humanitarian aspect of the conflict rather than just the political. “It’s not only about power, it’s not only about a piece of land. If it was actually about a piece of land where there’s no people it’s fine, but actually there are people and there are people that are suffering inside,” Al-shatarat said.
Al-shatarat said she hopes the play raises awareness about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “Instead of people siding by the Israelis or the Palestinians they now can think differently and say, let’s see what is realistic and how we can help those people. There’s a message behind this play and it’s to coexist and live in peace…let’s hope that this is something that we can dream of, to send this message to people that peace is actually a choice and we have to work hard for it. I hope we’re going to find a way to solve it, you can’t please everyone but you can try—at least you can try,” Al-shatarat said.”
The play’s show times are 7:30 pm from Oct. 24 to Nov. 2 and during the free student previews on Oct. 22 and 23 and matinee showings are on Nov. 1 and 2 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are free for U students.
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