note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Theatrical wunderkind Guy Ben-Aharon, 25, founder-artistic director-director of Israeli Stage Co., has made tremendous strides, bringing Israeli and German plays to the Boston area the past few years. The Emerson College graduate has gained support and accolades from the theater community, including Boston’s finest actors, directors, technicians and specialists.
This time, human dynamo Ben-Aharon reached a milestone with ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, directing and presenting the North American premiere of his company’s first, full production of Gilad Evron’s award-winning 75-minute, one-act play, “Ulysses on Bottles,” starring Boston’s beloved Karen MacDonald, Will Lyman, Ken Cheeseman, Jeremiah Kissel,and Daniel Berger-Jones.
The play won Israel Theater Prize’s Best Original Play award for 2012.
The sparsely-furnished production takes place in Emerson/Paramount Center’s intimate Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, with theatergoers seated nearby, on all four sides of the stage.
Evron’s story involves tension-ridden Gaza, where an impassioned, retired, idealistic, Israeli-Arab literature teacher constructed a raft of empty plastic bottles, loaded tomes of Russian literature on it, and attempted to deliver the books to Gaza’s disadvantaged residents. When he’s arrested for crossing into forbidden territory, successful Israeli-Jewish lawyer Saul Izakov offers to take his case, pro bono.
Because of the offender’s unusual sailing craft, authorities have dubbed him “Ulysses on bottles”. Is he a wacko? Is he trying to make a point and gain media attention? And why, specifically, has he chosen to enlighten Gaza residents with Russian literature? Because everybody must read, and Russian literature is without equal, says an impassioned “Ulysses”.
The cast delivers sterling performances, especially Jeremiah Kissel as Izakov, and Cheeseman as “Ulysses,” who refuses to back down to authorities. At times, Cheeseman is gripping, pleading his case for bringing literature to Gaza’s downtrodden.He’s also proving his self-worth and sense of purpose, especially after a personal tragedy.
Ever-impressive Will Lyman portrays Seinfeld, equally unyielding overseer to the Gaza blockade. He’s working with Kissel to convince Ulysses to accept a plea bargain - never try illegally to enter Gaza again, or he’ll get shot on sight.
As Saul tries to reason with, defend and protect Ulysses, and appease authorities, his sleazy, ambitious, opportunistic lawyer cohort, Horesh, (nicely portrayed by Berger-Jones) defends known criminals, with wanton disregard to scruples. Kissel and Berger-Jones are a brilliant ying and yang of legal civility.
Unfortunately, award-winning actress Karen MacDonald portraying Saul’s wife, Eden, adds unnecessary fluff. Involved with a group to help children, Eden wants Saul to dress up ridiculously, in a frothy pink dress and headpiece, to entertain the children- to which he vehemently objects. Although ambitious Horesh offers to do it, Eden stomps off, angry about Saul’s refusal.
In a highly-charged, emotional scene, Saul relents, dons the silly pink dress and headdress, stands atop a desk, twirls and sings “Que Sera, Sera”. Eden is pleased, but we share his loss of dignity. And we share his plaintive pleas, reasoning with Ulysses.
Although “Ulysses on Bottles” raises questions about freedom, humanity, privilege vs.deprivation, dignity and individual sense of purpose, these lofty topics lose clout. Are they lost in translation, or are we Americans emotionally too disengaged to realize their impact?
BOX INFO: One-act, 75-minute play, written by Gilad Evron, making its North American premiere with Israeli Stage, presented by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, to April 25, in Emerson/Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, 559 Washington St., Boston. Performances: April 22,23, at 7:30 p.m.;April 24, at 8 p.m.; April 25, at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets, $25-$49; group,senior,student discounts. Call the Box Office at 617-824-8400 or visit www.artsemerson.org.