Theater review: 20-year-old ‘Via Dolorosa’ still relevant, rewarding​​​​​​​

By DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA | Special to the Pioneer Press

August 21, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Events and individuals in the Middle East have swept past since British playwright David Hare traveled to Israel and Palestine in late 1997 and since he first performed his one-man play, “Via Dolorosa,” a year later: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was still alive back then. Benjamin Netanyahu was serving his first term as the Israeli prime minister. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — one of Netanyahu’s predecessors — was still fresh in the mind of the world and especially the consciousness of Israelis.

But the roots of conflict in a land riven by political and religious conflict, of course, go back millennia, so a 20-year-old play has much that still resonates on the topic. The complex, multifaceted story gets strong service in a complex-but-accessible production by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, in which local actor Robert Dorfman assumes the role Hare wrote and originated.

The play draws its name from a street in Jerusalem that Christians believe to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Hare trod this road (and was disappointed), but his journeys took him much farther — from cosmopolitan Tel Aviv to a remote settlement in occupied Israeli territory; from the impoverished Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip to Ramallah, the Palestinians’ de facto capital.

It’s a lot of geography and history and politics, and if none of the names in the first paragraph of this review aren’t even remotely familiar to you, the show may be tough sledding. But both the playwright and the production offer ample entries into the story, so comprehending and appreciating “Via Dolorosa” doesn’t require undergraduate work in Middle Eastern studies, either.

And though the play draws on a handful of different perspectives in its attempt to contextualize the conflict, this is not your typical one-performer/multi-character tour de force. Dorfman intentionally doesn’t labor to affect Hare’s English accent or cadence, nor does he try for vocal or physical verisimilitude with the Israeli, Palestinian or miscellaneous other characters he represents.

When speaking as a 40-something wife and mother living in a settlement, for instance, Dorfman simply crosses his arms across his chest in a manner that suggests self-protection. As an especially ardent proponent on one side or another of the issue, he might let his eyes grow wild; his gestures sharper and more animated.

More than anything else, the 85-minute presentation — staged on Michael Hoover’s simple set made up of a pyramid of bankers’ boxes, a deskand an office chair — feels like a conversation with your smart friend trying to unravel a Gordian knot of geopolitics: At Sunday evening’s performance, in fact, an older woman in the front row felt sufficiently comfortable to provide her conversational offerings — an occurrence director Raye Birk probably did not count on in a show that unveils itself gradually and leisurely. Dorfman — poised, infinitely kind and without breaking character — deftly acknowledged and engaged with the patron on a few occasions, then adroitly steered the show back onto the road.

Though Hare postulates that the nature of the conflict in the Middle East changed fundamentally in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967 — during which Israel took control of a significant amount of territory — “Via Dolorosa” does not strongly back one particular perspective. Instead, the play almost journalistically reports on the complexities of the conflict, mulls the excruciating difficulties of finding stability and implicitly but unmistakably calls out for civility in dialogue, even during the most polarizing of times.

All of which makes this 20-year-old play about an ancient conflict half a world away seem both contemporary and close to home.