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  • Richard Byrne

Mona Mansour's The Vagrant Trilogy

This entry is the first in a continuing series of appreciations of work I find interesting as a playwright. They are not reviews, though I will occasionally delve into production details.

Mosaic Theatre's world premiere staging of the three plays of Mona Mansour's The Vagrant Trilogy as a single evening is audacious and riveting. The production of The Hour of Feeling, The Vagrant, and Urge for Going clocks in at over three hours, yet the drive and assurance of these plays make that passage in what felt to me as half that time.

Taken together, the plays in Mansour's trilogy are a master class in the play of ideas, and not only because the ideas -- exile, the price of knowing, political violence, and the suffocation of dreams -- are so rich and provocative. The Vagrant Trilogy is so good because those ideas inhabit characters who can articulate them with such power, tenderness, anger, and even resignation.

The Vagrant Trilogy traces the path of a Palestinian intellectual, Adham, through his introduction to the world of British academia as a visiting lecturer in the heady days of 1967 London, and then forward into two very different futures in the orbit of his Palestinian wife, Abir.

Adham is a student of English literature, and a specialist in the poems of William Wordsworth. Yet his dogged pursuit to understand the work of the foremost Lake Poet, and become a part of the wider world of literary scholarship, is undertaken in the shadow of a childhood and young adulthood spent as a refugee from the Palestine destroyed by the Nakba in 1948.

Though Adham's English is impeccable, and his deep reading of Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798" marries strength and subtlety, The Hour of Feeling makes it clear that Adham's new acquaintances at the University College, London see him both as a fascinating curiosity, and as an object of sympathy.

The tug of war between ambition and alienation within Ahmed is amplified by a series of social engagements at which Abir -- as the wife of the ambitious academic -- must tag along gamely, listening to profesorial jousting with a knowledge of English that is limited to Lulu's hit, "To Sir With Love." But the contradictions come into sharp focus with the eruption of the Seven Days War during his stay in London. The decision Adham confronts (with his own dreams, and the anxieties and alarm of his wife in tow) is immediate and momentous: Stay or go.

The second and third plays of The Vagrant Trilogy trace the possible outcomes of each choice. The Vagrant places Adham in London in 1982, on the cusp of discovering whether he will be awarded a full professorship at University College. He is divorced, yet still entangled with Abir, who has made her own way in the city. In the third play, Urge for Going, Adham is with his family and Abir's in a refugee camp in Lebanon. His son's promise has been shattered by senseless violence, but his daughter, Jamila, grasps for the same escape through intellectual ambition that he pursued and then left behind.

After seeing Mosaic Theatre's production twice, I'm struck most by two things about the trilogy.

The first thing is Mansour's seemingly omnivorous intellect. The bare plot summaries sketched out above put barely a nick in the substance of this playwriting. This is work that brims over with ideas, but deploys them so strategically and sublimely that they become unbearably moving. The work encompasses three generations of the Palestinian tragedy, and the fervent debates over how one can (or should) resist provoke a palpable ache -- especially read back from a present moment in which the hopes of Oslo and a two-state solution have been so comprehensively smashed.

Yet The Vagrant Trilogy is not swallowed up in these passions or polemics. Rather, its politics are deeply felt, and full of contradictions -- much like the politics of the patron poet of these plays. Mansour's use of Wordsworth's poetry and life to simultaneously connect with the audience and provoke them is simply dazzling. Wordsworth the lover. Wordsworth the observer. Wordsworth the poet of memory -- and resignation.

The payoffs to steeping the trilogy in the Wordsworthian universe keep coming throughout the play. In The Vagrant, a passage from The Prelude about Wordsworth's time in France, imbibing the fervor and fury of revolution, is the spark that ignites a profound confrontation with unforeseen consequences. And, in Urge for Going, Adham steps forward, out of the refugee camp, to recite a brief soliloquy that weaves Wordsworth's key poetic themes of memory and return to the Nakba and U.N. Resolution 194 in a way that is breathtakingly simple, natural, and devastating.

The second thing that struck me deeply was how the text opened up -- in this production -- into such marvelous and resonant textures. In the Mosaic production, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, the audience must navigate English and Arabic dialogue. Projections translate the latter, but the flavor and the rhythms remain.

Those same projections and videos focus, animate, and cajole throughout the play. Images of a grinning Nasser and Moshe Dayan. The high-pitched but restrained fury of Thatcher-era BBC reporting on the IRA. The payoffs here are huge as well, especially a shattering moment that concludes The Vagrant, in which Adham's vision of the Wordsworthian landscape is brutally cut off by the sudden intrusion of the harsh reality of the refugee camps.

The music, too, tells myriad stories. The wistful hopes of Arabic pop and Lulu give way to apocalyptic power trio blues rock frenzy of Cream's "Swlabr" in The Hour of Feeling. The manic political and cultural Two Tone energy of The Selecter is juxtaposed with Adham and Abir's nostalgia for the music of youth in The Vagrant.

Mansour's three plays invite these suggestive connections, and are enhanced by them, without ever being overpowered. This playwright not only has the urge for going, but for going somewhere very specific and profound. It is a credit to Mosaic Theatre that they have recognized Mansour's voice as one that should be heard -- and heard in its full breadth and scope -- in the nation's capital.

The Vagrant Trilogy runs through July 1 at Mosaic Theatre. Tickets here.

Photo: Nora Achrati, Dina Zoltan, Elan Zafir and Hadi Tabbal in The Vagrant.

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