In yet another brave season of new plays, San Francisco's Magic Theatre has come up with a winner. The world premiere of Betty Shamieh's “Territories” provides a gripping play of sustained interest. Thoughtful, provocative, well-acted, this a vitally contemporary story, although set in the time of the Crusades. Except for a few meaningful but half-hidden references to the situation in the Middle East today, “Territories” speaks of timelessly important issues.
The play's three characters are based on historic figures, but Shamieh — born of a Palestinian family, in San Francisco — imbues them with personalities that serve the her dramatic purpose.
Saladin (Salah al-Din), a Moslem Kurd from Tikrit who ruled over Egypt and Syria in the 12th century, tried to make peace with the Christian invaders, but eventually led the resistance to the Crusaders, and recaptured Jerusalem and other cities they had occupied. Dressed in Fumiko Bielefeldt's splendid costume, Alfredo Narciso gives the character a shaded, subtle reality, playing a man of peace slowly forced to become a brutal sultan. (Shamieh's story stops before the real Saladin ordered beheading hundreds of prisoners in the Third Crusades.)
Reginald of Châtillon, played by Rod Gnapp with gusto and bluster, was called the Wolf, and behaved like one in the Crusades, chopping off noses and ears when not killing hordes of enemies.
Some aspects of the intricate relationship between Reginald and Saladin portrayed in the play are based on the historic interplay between the Arab ruler and the English King Richard the Lionheart, who had suggested to Saladin that his sister could marry Saladin's brother, with Jerusalem as their wedding gift.
In “Territories,” the heroine is Saladin's sister, a brilliant but crippled woman who is captured by Reginald, but in turn captivates the savage soldier. In a thrilling performance, Nora el Samahy creates a memorable figure of the “nameless sister” (called Alia here), who overcomes enormous physical, societal and cultural handicaps. To tell more would give away the ending.
“Territories” excels in its finale. While the show has satisfying finality, at the same time, its sends the audience out of the theater deep in thought, intrigued, and trying to work out the meaning of what had happened.
IF YOU GO
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 10
Tickets: $20 to $45 general; $5 to $25 sliding scale tickets may be available 30 minutes before performances
Contact: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org.