Two decades later, 'Via Dolorosa' remains a powerful and provocative work on Palestine and Israel

Tuesday, August 22, 2017 by Jay Gabler in Arts & Leisure 

The character played by Robert Dorfman in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Via Dolorosa recounts a story he heard during a trip to Israel and its occupied territories. A man falls from a burning building, and lands on another man, breaking the latter’s neck. When the man who absorbed the impact complains that his neck is broken, the man who fell protests that it wasn’t his fault — the building was on fire — and then begins breaking the man’s other bones to try to get him to stop complaining.

It’s a grim allegory, but it encapsulates the way many Palestinians feel about Israel, while also capturing the compounding tragedy of the continuing violence in a nation that was itself founded in the wake of an unimaginably vast atrocity. When will the bleeding stop and the healing begin? The answer to that question is at the core of David Hare’s probing one-man play, which debuted in 1998 but remains brutally timely.

Via Dolorosa came about as the result of a trip that Hare himself took to Israel, initially with the idea of researching a play about the political machinations between the first and second world wars. Instead, Hare found himself gripped with anxiety and fascination about the Israelis and Palestinians he met, and wrote a one-character script in which he would play himself, recounting his travels.

It’s a testament to Hare’s skill that a seemingly sui generis exercise holds up two decades later, with the British writer played by an American actor. Under the capable direction of Raye Birk, himself a well-known local actor, Dorfman doesn’t try to imitate Hare; he doesn’t even use an accent. Instead, he concentrates on telling the story, which takes us from Tel Aviv to the West Bank to Gaza to Jerusalem, where he walks the eponymous street that follows the footsteps of the condemned Christ.

Or does it? The narrator observes that we can’t really know exactly where the crucifixion happened, which invites a wider consideration of the significance of place. What are the Israelis and Palestinians fighting over, he asks: stones or ideas? The question seems abstract, but in fact it’s of critical importance to people, like a couple who live confidently and comfortably in a disputed settlement. They tell the playwright that they feel unequivocally entitled to the land. How can you void a deal with God?

Dorfman is often seen (on both stage and screen) as a character actor, but he’s more than equal to commanding the stage alone for 90 minutes. His great gift, here, is to combine a very real gravity with an impish sense of humor. His performance acknowledges the absurdities of his journey, while also telegraphing authenticity and empathy. Via Dolorosa isn’t one of Hare’s best-known plays, but it’s a powerful and provocative work that should be seen. You won’t get a better opportunity than this very fine production.