Stellar ‘The Return’ marks Israeli Stage’s final production

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

“I think I may have done something wrong,” the Jewish Israeli character known as Her says to the Palestinian Israeli character known as Him. “I want to understand and make it right.”

“The Return,” the provocative and extraordinary two-character play performed by Israeli Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion through May 19, slowly unravels the mystery of love and betrayal that underlies the relationship between these two very human beings trapped within a politically complicated country. Their backstory is a roadmap that examines Israel’s establishment and its contemporary social and political order through a Palestinian lens.

Because it is impossible to avoid spoilers in a full-throated review, broad brushstrokes must suffice. The writing (Palestinian-Israeli Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast), acting (Philana Mia and Nael Nacer) and directing (Guy Ben-Aharon) are brilliant. The set design (Cristina Todesco) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) are powerful, yet unobtrusive, subtly evoking an interrogation room. And the post-performance moderated dialog last Saturday evening was as thought-provoking and engaging as the play itself.

The 65-minute intermission-less show is a product of the ongoing 20-year collaboration between the Seattle-based playwrights, who met through mutual friends soon after Mast returned from his first trip to Israel. The two talked a bit that night. The next day Hanna asked Mast if he would be interested in teaming up on a project he had in mind. “Aside from being a good playwright, Ed is an activist for human rights,” Eady said.

That project became their first play, “Sahmatah: Memory of Stones,” based on interviews with refugees from the Palestinian village destroyed during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In 1998, it was produced in Arabic in the Masrahal-Midan Theater in Haifa, and on the ruins of the village of Sahmatah in the Upper Galilee.

Eady, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts in drama and directing from the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in Buqayah, a small village similar to Sahmatah, also in the Upper Galilee region of Israel. “A mixed population of Palestinian Druze, Christians, Muslims and Palestinian Jews lived there together for thousands of years. In 1948, Israel was established and the harmony of their life in the village was destroyed,” Eady said. A large part of his family fled and are now scattered around the world in five continents.

His intent in writing “The Return” is twofold. “I would like the audience to feel the tragic reality of daily life of the Palestinian people, to see they are deprived of the most simple and natural thing in life, which is normal human contact,” he said. He also wants theatergoers to notice the play’s message of hope and spread it. “A good play changes attitudes and motivates the audience to take action,” he added.

Mast, who grew up in California, was “a very typical uninformed passive supporter of Israel” when he befriended a Palestinian coworker. “Through their eyes, I began to see things differently,” he said. He and Hanna have much in common. They both act and direct, and are compatible personally, politically and artistically. “We know a lot of beloved people who are in danger every day because of a system that places one people in power over another.”

When Guy Ben-Aharon founded Israeli Stage in 2010 as a 19-year-old Emerson College student, his goal was to expose American audiences to Israeli plays. Over nine seasons, the company has become known for its commitment to diversity, empathy and building community bridges through shared dialogue. “It’s so easy to exist in echo chambers, and have our own thoughts and opinions regurgitated for us. It is much more challenging to confront dualities and a multiplicity of experiences,” the Israeli native said.

“The Return” marks the last play of his company’s final season, and Ben-Aharon is “really glad” to share this Palestinian-Israeli perspective on the reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It is the very first time we will have done that in nine seasons’ worth of work. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit.”

The Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts is located at 527 Tremont St., Boston. For tickets, visit IsraeliStage.com or call 617-933-8600.

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Israeli Stage presents blistering, sensual drama ‘The Last Act’

 

Guy Ben-Aharon, c:o the director, photographer Esra Rotthoff

Director Guy Ben-Aharon

 

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?

 

Playwright Joshua Sobol

 

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.