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January 24, 2018 | What Did You Think?,

What Did You Think of In the Eruptive Mode

Thanks for joining us for Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre’s production of In the Eruptive Mode. We are thrilled to have Sulayman Al-Bassam back in Boston with this timely piece. In case you missed it, you can find thoughts from the company on the piece here.

In the Eruptive Mode is the coming to us following the power and complex conversations that happened around Kiss and Gardens Speak. We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

34 responses to “What Did You Think of In the Eruptive Mode”

  1. Cheryl says:

    Powerful is an understatement – this is a show that will stay with me for a long time. This seems to be the type of performance that will grow as more and more people see it, and share the experience with others – it’s a shame it’s only here for one week, if you have a free night this week, please do yourself a favor and get in to see this!

    • David Dower says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share, Cheryl. You saw the first performance, which was actually the first time the piece had ever been performed in the US. Sulayman learned a great deal about the impact of that difference that night. Primarily the piece has been performed in non-English-speaking countries. And the differences were profound. The company met the next morning to make adjustments (pace in English, handling the subtitles, etc.) and as you guessed, the performance has grown throughout the week. Glad it’s staying with you!

  2. L says:

    The very elegant SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM introduced the work as a new version of a previous show, where this time, the men were removed. From his introduction, I was very open to see the show.

    Positives were the opening presence of the 3 women. Though the musician did not have speaking lines, she created and carried the emotional atmosphere with clarity and eloquence.
    But the words and monologues that ensued were a strange combination of energetic and yet somehow, monotone. I had to accept that the performance was going in a very advantgard way. But what was disturbing was the repetition within each monologue story that conveyed a sense of titillation over violence and rape. There was no moment of or hint of transcendence. Very depressing. Perhaps that was the point. But it really came off as written by a man who while sympathetic to the plight of the women he portrays, cannot help be aroused by their suffering. The end left me feeling bad for the talented women who signed up to be in his show.

    • David Dower says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience, L. As you’ll see in the comments, you are not alone in the particular discomfort you report around the gender politics of the piece. What I can tell you is that the three women were very much artistic collaborators in the making of the work, and hearing them speak about their roles in the process and commitment to the goals of the piece might have helped with that discomfort some. Often we make opportunities for audiences to discuss the piece directly with the artists involved- in particular after the Friday and Saturday performances- and I hope you will find us (and them) before you head out another time to see if there’s some comfort to be found in dialogue. I appreciate your willingness to take the “world on stage” journey here and hope you will ride with it a while longer!

  3. DDE says:

    Sorry, didn’t like the play at all. If you create a play that’s 100% poetry, you need to provide enough context so the audience can understand, and this didn’t happen, at least for me. (Even though I read the NY Times every day and have a Ph.D.) I could appreciate the hard work by the two actors and the musician, but the script left me unsatisfied and confused.

    • David Dower says:

      This question of how much context to provide in advance is something I wrestle with constantly here. On the one hand, I always want the artists to have an unfiltered access to our audience for their work. I don’t want to impose my gaze on their work, or the priorities of our organization. And I don’t want to be patronizing nor do I want to appear to be apologizing for the challenges in programming choices. But, we are working with all sorts of unfamiliar “come froms” at ArtsEmerson, and as you are calling out here, these can sometimes create a wall of alienation for the audience that is just to high to clear. After the performance you saw Sulayman spoke to the audience who remained for the conversation about his use of poetry and stark visual imagery as an effort to get past the numbness we have entered as a result of the endless news reporting on this region. “All the news and documentaries haven’t lit the spark of empathy in the world, so I’m trying to access that in us through art.” We’ve created a program that takes place in libraries and community centers around the city, called The Play Reading Book Club, to offer people the opportunity to get deeply inside the plays in advance. You can find more information about it via the link below. I realize this is not exactly what you are asking about, but you may find it interesting for future works that draw your attention.

  4. Sumru says:

    I was prepared to be moved, even shaken, by multiple presentations of the hopes and tragedies unleashed by the Arab Spring. Instead, I was baffled. The material did not get off the page. I could sum it up in a facile way saying the piece was lost in translation for me for I lacked the background to place the poetry into context. It did not help that two actors played multiple parts, without clearly delineating the transition from one to the next character. It also did not help that the actors mostly recited the lines, instead of acting them, thereby losing one more element of being able to project the material. It may be that the playwright also directed and his vision remained within the boundaries of what he knows so well. A different director who is more familiar with the audience may have been able to stage the material with a greater focus on what the audience will likely “get” from this dense material. There is promise in this work. It needs to be worked over (and over and over)

    • David Dower says:

      I don’t read your summing up as facile at all, Sumru, and thank you for sharing it here. That’s exactly the challenge– the cultural bridging between a work’s anchoring “come from” and our local ways of receiving and experiencing it. I love that you landed it so succinctly. In endeavoring to put the world on stage at ArtsEmerson, we are attempting to create spaces, through art, to experience and practice the different perspectives and frames of our neighbors as a global city, and of the different nations and cultures that impact our daily lives. For one specific example of a difference, the kind of emotion-centered acting you are looking for in this piece is a very American style of telling and knowing. I travel all over the world seeing work and our theater stands almost alone in its focus on naturalism. And, as you say, it’s how many of our audiences come in the door– and any director not familiar with this cultural nuance is going to seem out of touch, his actors distant or remote. For me, this is part of the purpose at ArtsEmerson. Our city is comprised of many different cultural perspectives, different languages and customs, and we all bump into each other all day. Or, more to the point, we too much keep to our separate corners and our potential as one city is diminished by our separation. So, here we create intentional encounters with each other. It’s a big responsibility, trying to make those encounters productive and energizing rather than alienating. Given the rich conversation prompted both here and in the theater after the performances this week, I know there’s value in it. And also that there’s more we need to do, as the hosts of both the artists and the audiences, about facilitating connections in the encounter so that we don’t just bounce off each other in moments of deep differences in our respective expectations of each other or of Theater, itself.

  5. Susan says:

    Powerful, poetic, and thought-provoking. Truly an intense theatre experience that I cannot stop thinking about today. Bravo to ArtsEmerson for challenging the Boston audience and helping one to gain a better understanding of the Middle East with Kiss, Gardens Speak, and In the Eruptive Mode. Sulayman Al-Bassam introducing the work was an added bonus. The music and Brittany Anjou were superb, as well as the performances by Catherine Gowl and Hala Omran. My one caveat was that I had a difficult time understanding the entirety of Gowl’s lines–perhaps it was the acoustics or the necessary rapidity of her delivery. Perhaps her dialogue should appear as subtitles in English as well. Would love to read the script and see other works by Al-Bassam.

    • David Dower says:

      Thank you so much for your encouragement and advocacy for the work, Susan. Boston audiences are so game for these challenges and it’s a thrill to be working at this in this city. You are raising a perfect point around that opening monologue that Sulayman and Catherine learned a lot about at that first performance, which you saw. That was the first time the piece was performed for a primarily English-speaking audience. Normally, that piece is subtitled into the dominant language of the audience and, via the subtitles, they have time to linger with the images in the poetry. Catherine learned that she needed to create that space herself inside the performance, as people were not reading along with her performance in the US, but relying on her to deliver the full range of experience. If you read the Boston Globe review, which was written following the second performance, you’ll see that she adjusted rather remarkably, with Sulayman’s help, and that opening monologue set the table for the poetry and imagery of the night again, as it’s intended to and traditionally had. Good eye! Helpful comment. And thanks for being with us for so many of these experiences!

  6. Fred says:

    “In the Eruptive Mode,” which I saw last night, is extraordinary. Its power lies in an inventive and remarkably broad reaching portrayal of aspects of the Arab Spring. Its majesty lies in its poetic and even mystic presentation, speaking through the voices of women, resonating in one’s soul. Much lies unexplained, certainly. Some elements ring distant bells. Am I hearing the “Song of Songs”? To yours truly this is drama at its highest — with elements left for one to ponder — and some of these far beyond the very raw drama of the immediate plot line. One of the best works I have seen at ArtsEmerson in some time. Fred

    • David Dower says:

      Thanks for writing, Fred. The show settled in its pace and its use of these images throughout the weekend, as well, and your comments in the post-performance lobby chat were both encouraging for Sulayman and helpful in focusing the work they were still doing to get the piece to land properly with a US audience for the first time. So glad to have you on the ArtsEmerson ride!

  7. David says:

    The cast was good, but “In the Eruptive Mode” turns out to be quite flatly a bad play, for so many reasons.

    -The stories portrayed could have happened in any ethnicly-disputed warzone, and shed no light on Arab Spring specifically. Given the play is being promoted as insight into the experience of Arab Spring for everyday people, it falls far short of the goal.
    -For a play that was written bilingually, the content is bizarrely Western/Eurocentric, with half of the characters being European or American, and the majority of even Arabic-speaking characters being Christian. The music, while again performed well, ricochets through an array of incompatible styles, which only occasionally draw on Middle Eastern influence. The cast breaks character entirely during a grim scene to sing a straight rendition of a surf rock song. A scene about a prostitute is accompanied by cliche film-noir jazz. Another scene is built around references to a Doors song.
    -The play contains a quip about whether it’s ok for a play all about women to be written by a man. This joke does little to repair the fact that Al-Bassam is clearly incapable of writing believable, identifiable female characters. The characters have no agency in any scene. Every character’s perspective focuses either on their uncontrollable lust, sexual victimization, or beauty choices (makeup, razors, breast implants).
    -The degree of abstraction and metaphor detracted from nearly any opportunity to gain new understanding (factual, cultural, or emotional) of the experiences of Arab Spring. Every scene shone with the playwright’s desire to be the star (incorporating all sorts of mildly clever bits of writing that were irrelevant but may have been better saved for another play), at the expense of the cast, and at the expense of the context and subject matter — a shame, since I suspect most audience-goers were there *because* of the subject matter.

    • stayengaged223224 says:

      Yes, this is exactly my feelings about the play.

    • David Dower says:

      I’m sorry to read you found nothing of value in the experience. Thanks for going to the effort to get to the performance and for the time taken to share your responses to it.

  8. Gary Duehr says:

    Many powerful moments. Most accessible were the stories in prose about a woman’s experience. A lot of the piece was abstract, dense poetry that is too opaque. More context is needed: who is speaking, what country, in what state of the conflict? 6 women for 6 roles would help, as well as bits of costuming. Just 2 women, dressed in black, kept the piece too distant. Strong performances, and rich sound design.

  9. Amy says:

    I loved The Speaker’s Progress, so couldn’t wait to see this show.
    Thanks to Arts Emerson for its ongoing commitment to Suleyman
    Al-Bassam Theatre. In his pre-show speech, Al-Bassam let us know that the piece would challenge us and, yes, it did take me a while to get on board. There could have been more to the war correspondent episode, for example. I was moved by the episode about the Yazidi woman, but think that this may have been difficult for many to grasp. Maybe a post-show Q&A would have helped or Al-Bassam could have introduced the piece in greater detail.

    • David Dower says:

      Sulaymn continued to adjust the amount of detail he included in the preshow welcome, Amy– largely as a result of having heard this feedback from others following the first performance, which you saw. See above response for my thoughts on the question of context. Thank you for sharing yours. And for engaging both his work and ArtsEmerson’s!

  10. Nakshatra says:

    Intense and powerful but needed more context. Both women actors and the pianist were terrific and created a strong ambience that would have moved us all the more if the poetry and prose helped us take to another level. I was fully expecting to feel moved as the subject matter is of great interest to me but came out feeling confused and dazed. I appreciated Arts Emerson’s willingness to present cutting edge productions like this.

    • David Dower says:

      ArtsEmerson appreciates your appreciation of our willingness, Nakshatra. I’ve addressed the question of context a bit above. You were not the only one who wanted more from us there.

  11. Wanda says:

    The hijacked voices of the Arab Spring. Love you, ArtsEmerson, but maybe not the right time to present women’s voices filtered through the words, direction, experience, imagination, and perhaps fantasy of a man.

  12. stayengaged223224 says:

    I did not like the play at all, I thought it was overly pretentious. I also agree that even though the play tries to make light of the fact that women’s stories are being told through the male playright’s filter, I didn’t find that to be funny at all. Same with the quip about the white actress.

  13. Pam says:

    I really enjoyed this play and appreciate the complexity. If I wanted simple, neatly defined characters & plots, I could find plenty on TV. The fact that the vignettes lack clear, and often happy endings ring true to the reality of the Arab Spring, and war. These characters were with me all day, and I continue to think about the different voices that were expressed. Thank you, Arts Emerson, for opening doors & windows to different hearts and souls than we are used to, but ultimately recognize, understand and can even love.

    • David Dower says:

      Thank you, Pam, for taking the time to share your appreciation. What this thread is showing very clearly is the range of experiences “the audience” has with any given piece of work. I’m often struck by colleagues in institutions around the country who speak of “my audience” as if there was some sort of group mind going on around the place. Unlikely. More likely is that when given the chance to wrestle with programming and ideas, responses will be varied and rich as we see here. If we can learn to absorb different perspectives and different experiences in art, perhaps we’ll learn transferrable skills for dealing with difference in our world. That’s the theory, at any rate.

  14. Fred B says:

    I saw the play yesterday and share the reaction of those who felt that they didn’t come into the play with enough background knowledge to appreciate how the monologues relate to Arab Spring and its aftermath. Perhaps in the same way that the producers of Bangsokol provided some written information and context for the elements of their production, Mr. Al-Bassam could have provided some written context about the time and place and relevant cultural touchstones that animate the monologues. In the talkback, the actress Catherine Gowl spoke about how much she had to learn in order to take on her characters. She noted that even after all her research, she needed additional context and feedback from Mr. Al-Bassam in order to fully animate the characters. Without the benefit of that research and context, the performances and music/sound background were moving, but the production felt abstract and disorienting, and not nearly as informative and illuminating as i had hoped.

    • David Dower says:

      I find this discussion so heartening, as well as instructive. Your description of the challenges and the role of the context, Fred, is very apt and something that I am taking to heart. I’m sure Sulayman and company are learning as well. This being the first time in the US for the show, it’s been tremendously important to have not only the immediate feedback of the audiences during performance, but also these reflections. What I love about the commentary here is how engaged and nuanced it is. The baseline assumptions for the most part honor the efforts of the artists here (and, ArtsEmerson’s in programming it, which is doubly inspiriting) even as some of you are describing real struggles with it. This is the sort of dialogue we live for. Yes, we’d all prefer that everything was a solid hit with everyone who saw it, but there’d be little risked in that and little learning or progress in the doing. Thank you for taking these risks with us. We sincerely hope you’ll track us on the level of our capacity to listen and learn. See you at the theater soon, I hope.

  15. jh says:

    This is the kind of theater that is being seen the world-over. and we’re very fortunate to have it pass through Boston. Don’t miss it.
    I saw yesterday’s performance… and found it not only deeply moving, thought provoking and powerful… but very beautiful as well. I had to “stay in the moment” — didn’t look for a thread, just “sat” with it. (I do like to see theater that way.) Didn’t much look for story-line, just sat with the emotion/perception of the moment. Which worked for me. It will stay with me a long time, and continue to make me think. What did I see? What did I hear? What does it make me think about? What did I learn? I thought the music was spectacular — every bit of it. I will also keep in my mind many of the very beautiful images in many of the “scenes.” (lighting, costume, use of props, and overall setup.) And I thought the acting from all three actors was wonderful. In other words — am I enthusiastic? you betcha!

    • David Dower says:

      Yes, jh! This is entirely true that this work is very much in the mix of approaches to form and story around the world. We are foreign to it, given how few opportunities there are to encounter it unless you travel and, when traveling, see performances outside your cultural comfort zone. (Hamilton in London is a tremendous treat, but not going to take you much deeper into the aesthetic diversity of the world…) Keep coming. Keep sharing. Keep “sitting in it”. Looking forward to what you discover on your travels with ArtsEmerson.

  16. In any case I appreciate the offering at the Emerson even as I was a bit put off. says:

    I also found the pieces very powerful and difficult to grasp. The writer did come out in the beginning to offer some context but the show actually started at 8:01 PM so if you were a few minutes late you would miss this which we mostly did. The dialogue is crucial to the pieces and the English-speaking woman’s microphone was a little hard to understand. I found myself grateful for the woman speaking Arabic so I could watch the subtitles but even that is distracting. Although they’re o The dialogue is crucial to the pieces and the English-speaking woman’s microphone was a little hard to understand. I found myself grateful for the woman speaking Arabic so I could watch the subtitles but even that is distracting. Although the reiter talks about the story of women’s empowerment, much of that empowerment comes through Violence which is difficult. I also didn’t understand why one of the “Arab spring“ participant was from the viewpoint of an Israeli woman with the Palestinian as the enemy. Reading review the next day maybe wish I had read it before I saw it. In any case I appreciate the offering at the Emerson even as I was a bit put off

  17. IG says:

    A friend who accopanied me to the play said she experienced it as poetry: beautiful, with staying power, but not always understood on first hearing. I too was a bit lost in the narrative at times, but what stayed with me were the powerful images of a woman being dragged on the stage, and the resonant singing. At times I was very aware that I was watching a play in progress, in evolution. By the end, I was captivated, and did not want the play to end.

  18. Dear friends,
    This is what I wrote on my FB page, which I may post on my blog. Warning: it’s a bit long:

    With the aid of surtitles and an arsenal of theatrical enhancers in sound, lighting, and movement, “In an Eruptive Mood” travels between Arabic and English; ranges across an undefined geography of violence, endurance, and testimony; portrays the wounds inflicted on soul and body of its six female characters; and brings into its sphere the chaos of an unraveled Arab world (we used to call it so at one time!) under whose waters run the turbulances of desire and transformation. The picture is very bleak, Al-Bassam seems to be saying; there are no happy endings, or characters in this vast, complex landscape. We may call it endurance and such but, as John Berger tells us, endurance is the cruel gift of time.

    But character is not Al-Bassam’s main preoccupation; nor is it narrative line. He aims for something else, a kind of theater whose language takes in poetry, satire, lament, song, incantation, news-reports, and sub-verbal grunts, moans, and whispers—all of it from the mouth of real, ordinary people whose stories are re-imagined, re-cast as theater. There’s also a live piano on stage and a pianist who creates sound that is at times lyrical and romantic (even silly), but also bangs wildly on the instrument turning it at one point toward the very end of the performance into a weapon.

    At the center of this sonic universe is Arabic—in its vernacular and Q’uranic usage—to which the play pays homage in beautifully phrased sentences and, in perhaps the most moving moment of the play, in a riveting, protracted recitation of the takbir. But Arabic does not hold a dominant or privileged position in the play. On the contrary, it cohabits a shared space with English, as though the two languages were in solidarity with each other rather than in competition for our attention. Paradoxically, the Arabic of Hala Omran, the Syrian actress who so ably plays the two Arab roles–sometimes slow and plaintive, sometimes bawdy and demonstrative, sometimes imbued with religious faith–is easier to follow than the fast, fast English of Catherine Gowl, who plays the non-Arab roles with so much energy and noise as to detract from the pace and meaning of the lines.

    In content and aesthetic, “Eruptive Mode” is an ambitious project, its large purpose the source of both its power and its limits and limitations. The play is made up of six monologues, drawn and inspired by real-life characters and situations. There’s the prostitute of “The Lament of a Young Prostitute;” the Yezidi woman, Nadia Mourad, of “Nadia” who delivered a heart-wrenching speech to the UN Assembly; the Israeli/American woman of “I Let Him In” about her encounter as an IDF soldier with a Palestinian man; the war journalist in “Vertical Vision” ( inspired by Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times correspondent killed whilst reporting on the siege of Homs in Syria), and the Power Point marketer in “153rd in Line.”

    “Each of the characters,” says Al-Bassam, “exists in a distinct relationship to the geographies and timeliness of the Middle East region following the popular uprisings of 2012.” The distinct relationship does not mention a particular place we, Western audiences, may know or easily identify. This intentional anonymity of place is at first disconcerting, but as the monologues pass in front of our eyes, we get the sense that Al-Bassam aims for a linear display rather than a deep psychological or political analysis of each character’s story and conflict. In fact, it is not an over-simplification to say that all the characters are in more or less the same clutch—“at a tipping point,” as Al-Bassam says; all are in the victims of physical violence, all are caught in passage and transformation, of crossing a line, a taboo, a barricades as it were which they walk through chancing all. Nothing heroic in such transgression, for sure, the play seems to be saying—nothing heroic but also nothing pathetic either.

    The six women are all ordinary people thrown in the jaws of civil war, military occupation, terrorism, but also opportunism and foreignness. Above all, they carry the physical, bodily wounds of living in the time of transformation—in their abdomens and arms and wombs and genitals, in the imagined moments of their own passing through the barricades, of their death. Al-Bassam pays particular attention to the movement of bodies in space; he makes them march and bend and strut and recline and fall to the ground in outstretched arms and pregnant bellies, in moments of physical pleasure and loud, throaty laughter, and, in one of the most moving scenes, in the unclothed human form. Lighting design is his great asset here, which draws attention to itself and illuminates the surfaces–the skin–in a strangely unsettling way.

    By placing his entire project on the shoulders of six characters—two of whom are foreigners—Al-Bassam, by necessity, limits his larger ambition. Limits or muffles it? And while his portraiture of the six women is powerful and often original, he mostly avoids issues of class and corruption, of foreign meddling in sectarian tensions and so on. To be sure, there are passing references to these political ideas, but overall “In an Eruptive Mode” is an eruptive in the best and most generative sense of the word. Perhaps to ask more is not possible at this time and given that Al-Bassam is working in Kuweit and must tread carefully and nimbly.

    But the absence, or eclipse, of the political raises the theatrical to great heights in “In an Eruptive Mode.” The play seems to be asking questions of theater, and theater practice: Can two languages share a common theatrical space? How can the possibilities of a non-Western language be incorporated into theater? How can we expand the sonic universe of a play? How can we use testimony and document in the theater? Finally, and most important, how can we make the lives and experiences of ordinary people the stuff of a living, pulsating theater? Al-Bassam answers some of these questions in innovative, powerful ways. And that is saying a lot. And all this in 65 minutes, with no intermission.

    • David Dower says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share this here, Taline. It’s a great contribution to the conversation going on around this play.

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