Also see Arty's review of Philemon and Baucis: A Planet in Peril
Photo by Sarah Whiting
In November 1997, esteemed English playwright David Hare (Plenty, Skylight, Stuff 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)