By Shelley A. Sackett
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to be an unavoidable topic of discussion: in the news, in the gym, even in the produce aisle. From May 18 through June 1, the conversation will move from side bar to center stage when the Israeli Stage presents the world premiere production of award-winning playwright Joshua Sobol’s latest play, “The Last Act” at Martin Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion.
Known for controversial work that challenges and provokes, Sobol’s newest work boldly addresses a difficult question: once society legitimizes branding and treating a group as the “other,” is there any hope the two sides can ever see each other as anything other than an enemy?
Crafted as a play-within-a-play, the blistering and sensual drama centers on Gilly, a Jewish-Israeli unemployed actress leading a dull, settled life, and Djul, a Palestinian actor. The two share a passion to put on theater that is risky and matters. They mount an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” a play about an aristocratic woman and a senior servant, Jean, whose mutual attraction leads to tragedy.
Like the characters they play, Gilly and Djul feel a magnetic pull towards each other despite the cultural, political and social barriers that separate them. The plot thickens when Gilly’s husband, Ethan, a Jewish-Israeli intelligence officer, receives a surveillance assignment that involves spying on his wife and her Palestinian co-star, whom Ethan’s boss falsely assumes is a Hamas operative.
New York-based actress Annelise Lawson is just getting to know her character, Gilly, and she likes what she is discovering. “Her genius is her intuition; she picks up on everything. She is unabashedly assertive in pursuing her loves and doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” she said. “I’m a little envious of how she navigates her world.”
At one point, Gilly growls, “Theatre should be dangerous, or else it should not be!” Lawson agrees. “To get along in our daily lives, we have to edit ourselves constantly, making sure we express our opinions in just the right way. Theatre is one of the few places where we can drop the social mask and take the temperature of our culture. The act of telling the truth is dangerous.”
Sobol sees many parallels between “Miss Julie,” with its irrational and rigid focus on impenetrable social class barriers, and the situation in Israel. “The Israeli-Palestinian ‘mess’ has long abandoned the territory of sound reason,” he said, pointing out that the mutual prosperity Palestinians and Jews have experienced should have convinced the two communities they can only gain from a peaceful acceptance of each other. “But instead of thriving together in peace, the Hosseini belligerent leadership of the Palestinian community opted for a forceful showdown.”
The Israeli Stage’s mission is to share the diversity and vitality of Israeli theatre, and Director and Producing Artistic Director Guy Ben-Ahron considers “The Last Act” a perfect fit. “While the play is inherently Israeli, it is utterly universal. The peril of the surveillance state is a global phenomenon. The option for society to choose fear or hope is one that faces all Americans today,” he said.
Artistically, he appreciates that the play-within-a-play structure distorts the lines of reality, inviting the audience to tune into two realities simultaneously. “It blurs the lines of comedy and tragedy- it’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s poignant. I love the playfulness of the script,” he said.
Nightly dialogues will follow each performance, providing an opportunity for communal reflection. “Our vision is to create an opportunity to listen, inquire and reflect deeply at a time when our world suffers mightily from divisions and distrust. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit,” Ben-Ahron said.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com or call (617) 933-8600.