Conscience — the sense of the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior — is a curiously elusive human capacity. Some people’s conscience is attuned to both self and others; some people’s conscience is indistinguishable from egocentrism. One cannot know which is which except by watching and evaluating how someone acts. Theater happens to be an art form ideally suited for observing a character’s conscience in action in real time and thereby discerning who that person is. In the case of Ari Roth’s scaldingly self-inquisitional semi-autobiographical new play My Calamitous Affair…, theater can also be a public forum for putting one’s own conscience on trial.
The title is long — My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater — and the play is a lot. In it, the playwright and former founding artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company proffers his account of what went wrong that led to his resignation under a cloud two years ago. He does so in a sprawling two-act script, an ambitious attempt at moral reckoning that assays his own situational culpability by ping-ponging between prosecution and defense.
My Calamitous Affair centers on the bitter, geopolitically inflamed backstage drama that nearly blew up an actual production in Mosaic’s 2018–2019 season. That play was titled Shame 2.0, fictionalized here as Humiliation; and so essential is that play to comprehension of the plot of My Calamitous Affair that I recommend some prior familiarity with it (read, for instance, my review).
The salient storyline begins when Roth’s alter ego — a character named AD (Founding Artistic Director Until Recently) — visits a fringe theater festival in Israel and discovers a two-character pro-Palestinian play coauthored and performed by an Israeli Jew named Eilat Herzog and a Palestinian-Muslim with Israeli citizenship named Samad Hussein. AD invites the two theater artists to DC to workshop their play, which at the time consists of two monologues, one Eilat’s and the other Samad’s. AD, acting in his capacity as producer and artistic director, interposes himself as adapter, altering the script by adding dialog and inserting a third character, an antagonist, a political opponent of Palestinians named Miri Rekev, modeled on Israel’s actual censorious Minister of Culture & Sport.
“When we get new stories, we work on ’em; make sure they hit our special audience in a special place,” explains AD, a first-generation German-Jewish-American child of refugees.
But to Eilat and Samad, AD’s script doctoring is toxic. “It is impossible for American audiences to see the truth about Palestine because it is obscured by Israel,” says Samad.
American publishing, American movies, American theater refracts the experience of the Arab through Jewish eyes. And this is why this Humiliation 2.0 is so fatally compromised. “Palestinians must narrate in their own voice!”
Tensions get so fierce that by Act Two, Samad laces into AD in this blistering scene:
SAMAD: You don’t really see anything, do you? You say you “understand” the impact of a word, but the “impact of your action” remains unaddressed.
AD: My action being?
SAMAD: Intransigence. Lack of action. Your stubbornness.
AD: Well then, let me say, I am sorry that I have come across as stubborn, whereas, in fact, I thought I was being fairly open to–
SAMAD: (holding up a finger) Please. Enough. You have talked enough; for 6 months you have discussed your ideas for “our” script about My Life, and you have seized control like a Zionist. And Given Up Not One Inch. This is the apology you make to me? How you “have come across”? You are worse than The Worst Right-Wing Colonizer — because you are a Lying White Jewish Supremacist.
SAMAD: You say you make changes and change One Word!!! You make the slightest adjustment but give nothing away. And when we repeat this in rehearsal, you don’t listen. And when we present alternative, You Threaten To Send Us Home? “We do your idea, or you lock us out of the theater!?” We Don’t Want Your Idea!!! We Don’t Like Your Idea!!! And neither do your people! Your Staff thinks you are a Colonial, Occupying, White Supremacist.
If My Calamitous Affair were simply Roth’s self-exoneration, it’s doubtful that speech would stay in the script. And there’s lots more self-crit where that comes from. He has the Minister of Culture call him out:
MIRI: This man is Trying to Rehabilitate His Reputation, which has been in the dirt before!
Even Virginia B. Lawrence, AD’s right-hand Executive Director, throws him shade:
VIRGINIA [referring to Miri Rekev]: Her violence is in you. You enabled it.
AD: I abhor it. I abhor what we just experienced.
VIRGINIA: The violence passes through you, unbeknownst to you, as you produce it.
Director John Vreeke shrewdly meets the challenge of how to stage this text fest with a polished production that is both provocative and dynamic. The sleek, white-walled street-level space at the corner of 14th and R has see-through windows reflecting transparency as theatrical intent. Upon the wide upstage wall appear Projections Designer Devin Kinch’s scene-setting images and videos, a brilliant word cloud that punches up the fast-paced dialogue, and at one point a live stream of Eilat from Samad’s phone cam. It is impossible to picture My Calamitous Affair in performance apart from this eye-catching animated backdrop.
The cast is superb. Ilasiea Gray as Virginia B. Lawrence, Karl Kippola as AD, Lisa Hodsoll as Miri Rekev, Anat Cogan Eilat Herzog, and Hassan Nazari-Robati as Samad Hussein keep the playing area in diagrammatic motion as they fill the script’s fragmentary, staccato exchanges with sense and long speeches with passion. Their impressively heightened acting style both intensifies and illuminates the knotty drama, and Costume Designer Anna Marquardt smartly color codes each character — red (Virginia), blue (Miri), brown (AD), yellow (Eilat), and purple (Samad) — for added clarity.
Branching off from the throughline of AD’s moral reckoning are passages of enormous emotion — AD’s memories of his mother and father, and graphic evocations of Arab–Israeli conflict. While these exquisite digressions add depth and context, they also deflect somewhat from AD’s extraordinary conscience project, like time-outs from public self-scrutiny.
My Calamitous Affair may not give us a comprehensive narrative about what went wrong on Roth’s watch. But we do get something particular that is rare on stage and worthy: vivid and edifying evidence of what it might look like in retrospect to examine and own one’s flaws and errors along with one’s slings and arrows.
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture & Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater plays through October 23, 2022, produced by Voices Festival Productions as part of its Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, at The Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th Street NW (at R Street), Washington, DC. Tickets ($25–$42) can be purchased online.
Full credits and bios for My Calamitous Affair are in the downloadable program here.
COVID Safety: Voices Festival Productions’ Safety Practices are here.
My lunch with Ari Roth, who appears barely disguised in his own new play (interview with Playwright Ari Roth and Dramaturg Debbie Minter Jackson by Ravelle Brickman, October 1, 2022)
Mosaic Theater to move on without its founding artistic director, Ari Roth (news story by John Stoltenberg, November 18, 2020)
‘SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace)’ at Mosaic Theater Company (review by John Stoltenberg, February 8, 2019)
My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater
Written by Ari Roth
Directed by John Vreeke
CAST (in order of speaking appearance)
Virginia B. Lawrence: Ilasiea Gray
AD (Founding Artistic Director Until Recently): Karl Kippola
Miri Rekev: Lisa Hodsoll
Eilat Herzog: Anat Cogan
Samad Hussein: Hassan Nazari-Robati
Dramaturg & Cultural Consultant: Adam Ashraf Elsayigh
Additional Dramaturgy: Gillian Drake & Debbie Minter Jackson
Lighting/Projections Designer: Devin Kinch
Costume Designer: Anna Marquardt
Properties Designer: Elizabeth Long
Sound Designer: Alistair Edwards
Production Stage Manager: Kate Kilbane
Festival Production Manager: Keta Newborn
Assistant Stage Manager: Emily Beloate
Master Electrician: Cassandra Saulski
Understudies: Nessa Amherst, Deryl Davis & Rachel Manteuffel