BOSTON — As originally written, the title character in Gilad Evron’s innovative one act play, “Ulysses on Bottles,” is an Israeli Jew. When some of the original cast withdrew from the premiere in Israel owing to concerns about the play’s controversial content, an Arab-Israeli actor took over the role and Evron was asked to rewrite the play. At first he protested that it would change the story completely and would require a total rewrite. In the end, though, he found he only needed to change three words.
This vignette, shared during the post-performance Talk Back session after Sunday’s matinee, speaks to the universality of the dilemmas the play explores. Nominally, it is about Israel and Gaza, Jews and Arabs in a contemporary struggle of politics and place. According to playwright Evron, however, it is not about politics but about humanity and our treatment of fellow human beings.
The title character, a former teacher given to philosophical rants and quixotic political gestures, is in prison for having violated the Gaza blockade on a raft made of empty soda bottles. His attempt to deliver books of Russian literature to Gaza is an oddball odyssey that inspires the press to dub him Ulysses, Ulysses on bottles. He is passionate to the point of obsession about bringing books to the citizens of Gaza, and this obsession is at once his source of strength and purpose and his downfall. “Why books?” he is asked. “Because people need books,” he answers.
The play is structured as a series of small-scale encounters. Except for final bows, all five actors are never on stage at the same time. The pivotal role, and most richly articulated character, is actually not Ulysses but his lawyer, Saul Issakoff, played by Jeremiah Kissel. Saul is the foil in four interwoven struggles: with his wife, Eden, played by Karen MacDonald; with the ambitious young lawyer, Horesh, played by Daniel Berger-Jones; with an ambiguous but assertive “gatekeeper” played by Will Lyman; and with Ulysses himself, played by Ken Cheeseman.
Saul’s wife wants him to don a dress and sing at a charity event for children. Saul refuses to perform what to him is a silly and potentially humiliating act that could hurt his career. Horesh, a greasy lawyer who has no qualms about defending guilty gangsters, wants Saul to provide a shortcut to becoming a senior partner at their law firm. The gatekeeper, in running debates over the fate of Ulysses and Gaza, defends the blockade and opposes Ulysses’ attempts to break it. Ultimately, though, he just wants to be done with the whole matter.
Ulysses, at first believing that all he needs to do is convince a judge of his sincerity to be found not guilty, repeatedly rejects all of Saul’s defense strategies. He is not crazy, he argues, and he is not emotionally damaged by the death of his son. He is sane and rational, doing a modest and reasonable thing. Convicted and imprisoned, he suffers at the hands of his unseen jailers. Ultimately, he ends up placed on administrative detention, an indefinite sentence justified as being for his own safety. If he is released he will try again to deliver literature to Gaza; if he tries again, the gatekeeper explains, he will be shot.
The play poses questions without offering answers. Is it wrong to want to bring books to Gaza? Is it wrong to ban the import of books and paper? Why books? Why not? And why, of all genres, Russian literature? Asked this last question after the performance, Evron shrugged and said that he particularly loves Russian literature. He noted that many of the first Jewish émigrés to the area then known as Palestine spoke Russian and brought their literature and culture with them.
“Ulysses on Bottles” is the first fully-staged production by this young Boston company. The play is being presented by ArtsEmerson in the small Liebergott Black Box theater at the Paramount in downtown Boston. The staging is stark, symbolic and evocative, dominated by a plain wooden table and matching straight-back chairs. Scott Pinkney’s lighting design is controlled, creative and perfectly adapted to the theater-in-the-square format, with precisely positioned blinkered spots, dramatic shadows, and empty plastic bottles hanging above each seating section lit by LEDs that change with mood and scene. The sound design by Dave Remedios uses rumbles and clashes to complement the visual experience effectively.
The play is taut, emotionally and intellectually engaging, and performed without intermission. The acting, under the direction of Israeli Stage founder Guy Ben-Aharon, is authentic and modulated, taking advantage of the audience proximity in the intimate setting of the small theater. Cheeseman occasionally goes a bit theatrical in his delivery, but that is in keeping with his part. Evron himself praised the professionalism and artistry of the performance, noting that, in Israel, they had three months of rehearsal while in Boston, it came together in a mere three weeks.
From its official premier in Haifa in 2012, “Ulysses on Bottles” has been controversial. Ultimately, the play does not take positions on the uncomfortable dilemmas it poses, although some in the audience will no doubt leave believing that it has either attacked or affirmed their own politics. At the Sunday matinee, the audience, roughly half of whom were supporters of the New Israel Fund, was attentive and enthusiastic during the Talk Back led by Jonathan Soroff, but Ben-Aharon acknowledged that the discussions after some of the first performances had been quite heated. The group, however, is committed to promoting genuine dialogue and extending it beyond the stage.
Despite its stark setting and relatively simple story arc, the script is richly layered and nuanced, a drama that repays a second or even a third visit with fresh insights. In fact, some members of the audience asked if copies of the script could be made available.
This play is highly recommended, but come prepared to be challenged. At some points you will smile and nod in agreement, at some you will grit your teeth in protest, and at others you will be left acutely uncomfortable. In any case, do stay for the Talk Back that brings the dialogue among the players into contemporary Boston.
“Ulysses on Bottles” is at the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington Street, Boston, through April 25. Visit paramountboston.org or call 617-824-8000 for more information.