"Via Dolorosa" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theater

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 1997, British playwright David Hare(whose work was recently seen in the Twin Cities via Park Square Theatre's production of Amy's View) traveled to Israel and Palestine to do research for a play about British involvement in the area. What he came away with was a one-man play in which he, the playwright, tells stories from his journey there. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting Via Dolorosa to begin their 23rd season, and wow, is it fascinating. I realized just how little I know about the subject, and felt like I should have been taking notes for this engaging lecture. Vaguely familiar phrases like Six-Day War and Oslo Peace Accord sent me scurrying to Wikipedia this morning for details, but it would take weeks, months, years of study to understand all the complexities and centuries of history. This play doesn't attempt to spell everything out, but rather give one man's impression of the land he experienced and the people he met.

On his journey, Hare talked to people on both sides of the conflict, people with vastly different opinions even within one side. People who were young and old, famous and not. He seems to truly like most of the people he met with and presents their stories without judgement. As the original director of the play said, rather than taking a side, what Via Dolorosa speaks out against is extremism. There's a great sense of sadness in the piece, as there doesn't seem to be any end to the conflict in sight. Even now, 20 years later, it continues.

Although the playwright did perform his own work originally in London, subsequent productions, of course, have cast an actor (despite one of the first lines of the play being "I am not an actor"). I can think of no better #TCTheater actor to perform this role than the great Robert Dorfman (with an excellent TC directing debut by actor Raye Birk). Robert is so natural that you almost forget that he isn't the person who lived this experience. With that trademark twinkle in his eye, he brings the audience right into his story with warmth and humor, making it all the more powerful when the twinkle goes out and the story turns dark. The house lights are up for most of the show, so it does feel like an intimate conversation as Robert looks directly at the audience and even responds to audience reaction. It's such a pleasure to go on this at times difficult and complicated journey with him.

The show is performed on a mostly bare and empty stage, against a backdrop of many, many boxes, a few of which he unpacks as he tells his story, perhaps representing the mountains of history, writings, and opinions about Israel and Palestine (scenic design by Michael Hoover).

The world is so big, and so old, and so filled with people and their stories. I don't know if I'll ever have the chance to visit Israel, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience it, even a little, through theater (as I do so many things). Only four performances remain in the limited run of Via Dolorosa, so act fast to see this compelling, thought-provoking, moving play.

Talkin' Broadway Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Via Dolorosa
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Philemon and Baucis: A Planet in Peril

Robert Dorfman
Photo by Sarah Whiting

In November 1997, esteemed English playwright David Hare (PlentySkylightStuff Happens), travelled to Israel and Palestine to gather research for a proposed play about the British Palestinian Mandate, the League of Nation's award to Great Britain of supervision over the former Ottoman territory following World War I. The Mandate lasted through World War II, when Great Britain exited and a United Nations vote divided the territory and created the state of Israel. Once there, however, Hare found himself overwhelmed by the challenges he observed at every turn, from the grim determination of Jewish residents of West Bank settlements to strife over access to the Temple Mound in Jerusalem, from the desperation of Palestinians in Gaza to the manic hedonism of Tel Aviv. He put aside his history play in favor of soaking up all he could about the land's volatile present. The result is his one man play, Via Dolorosa, currently running at Minnesota Jewish Theater Company.

In Via Dolorosa, Hare has not created characters. The only character on stage is Hare himself, who is quick to claim from the start that he is no actor. He is simply reporting what he learned from his interviews and observations. He repeats conversations but does not try to "play the part" of anyone but himself. Instead of a cavalcade if Israeli and Palestinian types we have only Hare, an English gentile, striving to distill this bombardment of input into some kind of logical understanding.

Of course, David Hare is not on stage in Saint Paul. He is played by Robert Dorfman, a sensitive and ingratiating actor who projects a generosity of spirit and openness to conflicting ideas. For much of the play's ninety minutes, Dorfman portrays the playwright as intrigued, charmed and amused by the intensity and hopelessness he encounters. Not that he is dismissive of generations of pain, distrust and intransigence, but rather that his response to Israel and Palestine's existential crisis is one of tenderness, and also of distance: their terrible problems are not his. Only near the end, upon visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum, does he appear shaken. Finally, he sets aside the plight of Moslems and Jews to wonder about Christians—surprised that they seem to matter so little in this land that gave birth to their faith, too. Here the play reaches its namesake, the Via Dolorosa, thought to be the path walked by Jesus to his crucifixion, a walk meant to bring about redemption to the sins of humanity. Hare seems to make a connection between ancient tribal acrimony and his own history.

Directed by Raye Birk, the play follows a gradual but steady rise that gathers intensity, along the same arc as Dorfman's Hare. The backdrop is a wall made up of banker boxes—scores of them—containing Hare's notes from his journey, a visual representation of the massive amount of input, ideas, words and images that, for all their volume, led to no solution. There are subtle lighting shifts as Hare describes movement from one location to another, and sound cues—his arriving jet plane, Tel Aviv traffic, squawking sounds of a Palestinian village, the Mediterranean surf in Gaza—help to establish each place.

Things have gotten no better, and some would argue they have gotten worse, since 1998 when Via Dolorosa premiered in London, with Hare playing himself, followed by a Broadway mounting in 1999. At that time, the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who championed them (by another Jew—unthinkable!) were still very much front of mind for the Israelis. The brutal reality that resulted from the transfer of Gaza to "limited self-government" was a fresh wound to Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat was still a living, active player. And yet, the myopic rhetoric by which each side justifies its position, and the fatalistic responses of "I don't know" when Hare asks his interview subjects, "What is the way forward?" sound like today's news.

Though we have seen and heard much of this before—just last August, Minnesota Jewish Theater gave us the riveting DAI (enough)—and Hare's facts are not the most current, his engaged reportage cuts to the bone. Hare adds to that imagery, comparing the jarring contrast between Israel and Gaza to leaving California and entering Bangladesh. Another time, Hare is taken aback upon seeing Jews in West Bank settlements floating in their swimming pools while Palestinians walk on dusty roads hauling buckets of water to their homes. The dilemma for Jews is well framed by a former military leader who opines that conquering land is a very un-Jewish thing, the result of the game-changing Six Day War in 1967 and that the quandary now bedeviling Israel's soul is to decide "what really matters, stones or ideas."

Via Dolorosa is a potent addition to the canon of theater that deals with the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, a crisis without end. Given the venue, one would expect that most audience members will arrive fairly familiar with Hare's topic, if not all the names and places he gives us. What they will gain is Hare's crisp, incisive and untarnished depiction of the landscape and the people whose lives and futures are depend upon its resolution.

Via Dolorosa continues through August 27, 2017, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $39.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by David Hare; Director: Raye Birk; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume and Properties Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Stage manager: Haley Walsh

Cast: Robert Dorfman (The Author)

Via Dolorosa’ Gives New Take On Old Conflict

by Eliana Schreiber in Culturejewish organizationsTheater August 23, 2017

It’s not often that we get to hear an outsider perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In David Hare’s production of Via Dolorosa, not only do we get to experience the British playwright’s take on the conflict, but also the stories he collects and the people he meets along the way.

The play was inspired by Hare’s trip to Israel and Palestine in 1997, which he had taken in hopes of finding material for a play about the British Mandate in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Instead, he finds himself writing an entirely different play about his experiences, talking with politicians and other stakeholders on both sides of the conflict.

Hare, played by Robert Dorfman, gives an exclusive insight into this very personal journey as he experienced the land, including his own insights on the situation. Dorfman’s performance is unique and he adds his own spin to the story, lightening the sensitive nature of the story with clever observations and humorous bits.

The stage is set in front of a wall of boxes and Dorfman portrays the story to the audience as if he is talking to an old friend. With each city he mentions, he marks it on his sketched map of Israel on a teaching board, but it’s not to be confused with a lecture — the story is powerful and includes an incredibly diverse array of people in this story which conveys the real struggles at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Starting in Tel Aviv, and eventually making his way to Jerusalem, the West Bank settlements, Ramallah and even the Gaza Strip, Hare gets to experience all sides of the story as he tries to piece it all together himself. Hare was careful not to include too much of his own personal biases, mostly reflecting on his conversations with people, ranging from an American couple living in a religious settlement outside Jerusalem to Palestinian historian Albert Agazherin.

After talking Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, Hare concludes his trip by taking a walk down Via Dolorosa, the road Christians believe Jesus walked to his death, which doubles as the title of the play. He finds himself wondering what can be taken for certain and, more importantly, when the violence will end.

Sadly, the production and its message pose questions that remain painfully relevant to the conflict today, nearly 20 years later. Via Dolorosa explores these ideas, and leaves the audience hopeful, as Hare encourages an open dialogue, even when it seems unthinkable.

Review: Play 'Via Dolorosa' presents one man's journey through the Palestine quagmire

REVIEW: David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" views the conflict on a human scale. 

By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune

AUGUST 21, 2017 — 2:20PM

David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” takes its name from the path in Jerusalem that Christ traveled to his crucifixion. It translates as “Way of Sorrow,” an apt title for a play that maps Hare’s painful journey through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The English playwright traveled to Israel in 1997 to research a play about the British administration of Palestine in the 1930s-’40s but wound up writing a solo show about his trip, his impressions of the people he met and his insights into the conflicts that shaped the then-50-year-old state of Israel. He himself performed the work in London and New York and won a Drama Desk award for best solo performance in 1999, despite the fact that his only other acting experience was a school production of “A Man for All Seasons.”

Robert Dorfman takes on Hare’s role in a thoughtful production directed by Raye Birk for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Over the course of 90 minutes, Dorfman conjures a variety of locales and people while moving around Michael Hoover’s spare set, which consists of a couple of tables and a wall of file boxes, augmented only by Paul Epton’s occasional lighting effects and Anita Kelling’s sound design.

Hare’s text is filled with sensory impressions of the places he travels and the people he meets, and Dorfman ably captures the visual quality of the playwright’s language. He summons an air of mischievous disbelief when he describes a settlement as having an air of suburban normality more characteristic of Bel Air or Santa Barbara than of the dangerous frontier he had expected. His evocation of the Golden Dome of the Rock and its rich religious significance for both Muslims and Jews is rendered with poignant emotion, while his visit to Israel’s Holocaust museum conjures wrenching anguish.

Equally fascinating are the people he encounters, from Eran Baniel, co-director of a “Romeo and Juliet” in which Jews played the Montagues and Palestinians the Capulets, to Shulamit Aloni, a former Knesset member who believes nothing but bloodshed lies ahead after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Birk, in his directorial debut, modulates the pace and tone of this talky play to keep it from devolving into a lecture.

“Via Dolorosa” runs the risk of appearing dated in its focus on events and situations that were headline news 20 years ago, in a pre-9/11 world. This strong production, however, reminds its audiences that Hare’s focus on the perils of religious extremism is, if anything, even more pertinent.

Via Dolorosa

Who: By David Hare. Directed by Raye Birk.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 27.

Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul.

Tickets: $39. 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org.

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.