Israeli Stage Sets Sail with Provocative ‘Ulysses on Bottles’; Vibrant ‘God Box’ Explores Grief and Faith with Heart, Humor

“Ulysses on Bottles,” Israeli Stage and Arts/Emerson, Emerson Paramount Center, Boston through April 25. 617-824-8400 or artsemerson.org; more information at israelstage.com.

“God Box,” Next Rep Black Box Festival, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, ended April 19.

What better berth for Israeli Stage’s first full production than Emerson Paramount Center? For a few years, Emerson alumnus Guy Ben-Aharon has been showcasing the rich complexity and diversity of modern Israeli theater in staged readings at several area colleges as well as a home base at the Goethe-Institut/Boston.

Now the young producing artistic director is steering a remarkable inaugural production, the North American premiere of Israeli playwright Gilad Evron’s award-winning drama “Ulysses on Bottles” (“Ulysses Al Bakbukim”). Evron’s provocative short play (about 75 minutes) may disturb some theatergoers, but Israeli Stage’s glistening opener instantly stamps the young company as a unique and vital destination on the Hub theater map.

Alluding to Homer’s “Odyssey,” Evron’s play focuses on a former teacher nicknamed Ulysses who has been charged with security violations for trying to sail a raft on bottles loaded with Russian literature for Gaza. If you think “Ulysses with Bottles” was inspired by the recent Gaza-bound flotilla carrying armed terrorists, think again. Evron, writing his play (a 2012 Israel Theater Prize winner for best original play) before that confrontation, declared at a post-performance talkback that his play was actually inspired by the arrest of his own son – an IDF soldier – for refusing to serve in the so-called “occupied territories.” In fact, the playwright indicated, significant dialogue spoken by Ulysses derived from letters he wrote to Israeli authorities insisting that his son needed Russian literature during his six-month detention.

Israeli lawyer Saul Izakov, representing Ulysses pro bono, urges him to sign a statement promising never to try such a sailing again. “If you stop here,” he advises, “you have not betrayed your beliefs.”

Adamant about his position, Ulysses later declares, “I have to convince myself everyday I’m not groundless.” Suggesting that Gazan children end up not doing homework and that the area is becoming “a factory for making non-people,” the former teacher asks emotionally conflicted Izakov, “What does it mean not to read?” and wonders why such issues are not regularly nagging at the lawyer.

While Evron’s play vividly refers to Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Babel and other Russian writers well known by the former literature teacher, this talented dramatist appears to be stacking the proverbial deck with regard to Israeli security. A pivotal confrontation between Defense Ministry security officer Seinfeld and Ulysses seems to suggest that the former is a kind of devil. Curiously, Seinfeld maintains that his father despised Stalin (who had Jewish writers like Babel executed), though the officer’s warning about 12 million Gazans in 30 years, dialogue about “human porridge,” and talk of future shootings suggest a troubling comparison with the Communist leader.

Should theatergoers be upset that Seinfeld is a very grim security officer? Of course, they are not. Might the same audience members feel for Evron and his son? Of course, they might. The problem in this well-crafted play – its award notwithstanding – is a lack of balance. There ought to be a reasonable Israeli character asking, “What does it mean for Israel to worry continuously about its existence?”

Didactic and polemical theater generally does not rise to the level of art, but that advisory should cut both ways. What does it say that Evron has Saul’s social butterfly wife (wearing a stylish outfit from costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, with a butterfly motif) seeming oblivious to the needs of Gazans while running an event to help Israeli children?

What does it say that his play has self-centered Israeli law partner Horesh speaking glibly about bombing Gazans? Understandably Izakov will distance himself from their attitudes, but must he also effectively distance himself from Israel’s position between the proverbial rock and hard place as a country that medically treats Gazans despite missile attacks?

Audience members may disagree about what the play has to say about Israel, but there should be unanimous agreement about Ben-Aharon’s expert direction, cast members’ first-rate performances and the staging’s radiant design. Ken Cheeseman arrestingly captures Ulysses’ unrelieved defiance and brings real pathos to his experience coping with prison cell stench and darkness. Jeremiah Kissel sharply delineates Saul’s evolution from his client’s dispassionate attorney to a defender who thoughtfully questions his own principles. His “Que Sera Sera” dance in pink, at his wife’s request at her event, is an instant hoot and arguably the play’s most endearing sequence.

Will Lyman brings alarming intensity to Seinfeld’s fiery face-off with Ulysses. Daniel Berger-Jones makes Horesh properly opportunistic and self-serving. Karen MacDonald has the right combination of admiration for her husband and impatience with his self-questioning. Scott Pinkney poetically lights the bottles above all four sides of the audience in the Paramount’s intimate Jackie Liebergott Black Box. David Remedios’ nuanced sound design effectively enhances key moments of tension and edginess.

Evron’s disquieting play may need more artistic mooring, but remarkable Ben-Aharon and his sterling Israeli Stage crew make “Ulysses on Bottles” a passage worth booking.

***

Call “God Box” – a disarming solo piece written and performed by Antonia Lassar in the second annual Next Rep Black Box Festival – a very untraditional yet very spiritual shiva. Playing Gloria Adelman, a fictional, grieving Jewish mother, with great heart and unexpected humor, Lassar displays an uncommon gift for both accents and quick character changes as she pieces together the late daughter’s exploration of faith – including Buddhism and diverse cults – with the help of the title box containing important details of that unusual odyssey. The writer-actress’ vibrant telling of a particularly amusing Chelm story – which was the favorite of Gloria’s daughter – is as winning as this brief (little more than an hour) but buoyant celebration of love and life.
-Jules Becker

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