Alexandra Lemus and Fajer Kaisi as Paloma and Ibrahim

Paloma by Anne García-Romero, at the Kitchen Theatre through May 22

Paloma’s  crystalline structure throws off glints of joy and sorrow, trailing refractions of centuries of time as it delivers a modern Romeo & Juliet romance, of lovers sundered by generations of distrust.

Contemporary, sexy, concise yet vibrant, funny and piercingly sad, the play marks the Ithaca debut of playwright Anne García-Romero, a wondrous debut in Kitchen Theatre’s rapturous production under director Margarett Perry.

Ibrahim and Paloma meet in an NYU graduate seminar, students of writer Ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove, an 11th century Islamic treatise on the practice of love. Reading the text out loud to each other begins as an excuse for flirtation, which quickly ignites into passion. Yet the flip in this case is that the woman is eager to go to bed, the man demurs.

Paloma is a Latina raised Catholic, but generally non-practicing, while Ib is a devout Muslim, adhering to rules about chastity. In an attempt to solve his dilemma, he books passage over spring break for the two of them to Spain. They trace the path of the poet Hazm, and the peaceful co-existence that once lived in the cosmopolitan air of Moorish Spain, where all three peoples of the book easily mixed: Muslims, Jews and Christians.

This journey is told to us in fragments, García-Romero begins with a heated argument between Ib and his best friend, and now his defense attorney, Jared Rabinowitz. Something tragic happened in Spain to Paloma, and back in the States Ib is facing trial.

The play adopts the flashback style of mysteries and noirs, but uses this non-linearity to pursue the fractal nature of passion, history, time. The heart of the play is Ibrahim’s anger and deep grief, set against the memories of a coltish, impulsive, teasing young woman. The three actors in the play double in roles that ghost the central characters: Paloma’s mother; Ib’s father. 

The effect is a meditation on love as surrender, a cri de couer about the centuries that have driven a civilization apart, a contemporary collision of cultures in conflict rooted with great detail in a familiar story of two kids heads over heels.

García-Romero unapologetically invokes the iconic: Jared, Ib and Paloma all at some point talk on the importance of their names: Ibrahim, or Abraham, the patriarch that ties together the stories of the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. Paloma is “dove”—the beloved in The Ring of the Dove, the symbol of hope in the story of Noah. Rabinowitz, the rabbi, in whom Jared locates his sense of justice, descendant of a rabbi grandfather lost in the Holocaust.

Under Perry’s deft touch, the play explodes with feeling and rapture, humor and pain. Scintillating lighting by Erik Hershkowitz kisses the sculptural set of Gary Smoot. Smoot combines two structures evoking steps against a sky bisected by an open geometric design, a line in Arabic crosses the polished floor, with occasional breaks into tiles. Along with the sharp sound design by Nate Goebel, it constantly echoes the worn steps of Granada, the burn of sun on the desert, a gap between now and forever, the evanescent nature of desire. Lisa Boquist’s costumes attach us to the present, except when the scene extends into the supernatural.

Alexandra Lemus limns a Paloma brimming over with youth, headstrong yet smart, giddy with desire, yet never the naive. She transforms with ease into Paloma’s haunted mother, riven with sorrow. 

Jacob Heimer’s Jared is brash against practical, arguing with the urgency against the obdurate Ib, a mix of the gravid and the light, a touch wry, stubborn. 

Yet more stubborn is Fajer Kaisi in his portrayal of Ib. An impish charm and a quick tongue give way to a confused boy when desire and love tear at the principles of his faith. Loss becomes a deep well in Kaisi, he is heart-crushed, we notice the terror and fury in his eyes, as he gropes toward an answer. 

The play moves towards hope, tantalizingly, gingerly, but steadily. Hope against the despair of centuries of mistrust. Don’t miss this mesmerizing new play. • 

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