note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
When it premiered in 1998, some theatergoers were fortunate to see playwright-screenwriter-actor David Hare perform his award-winning, controversial play, “Via Dolorosa,” that cited Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Currently starring in the 90-minute, one-man, one-act monologue as part of New Repertory Theatre’s Black Box Festival, actor David Bryan Jackson doesn’t take a back seat to Hare. Over the past 15 years, Jackson has performed the play many times.
Portraying several people in Hare’s account of his 1997 travel to the MidEast, gathering information for a play Hare intended to write about the area’s contrasts and conflicts, Jackson is compelling, sympathetic, offhanded, and enigmatic. Without changing costume, props, or anything else on Ryan Bates’ sparse set, Jackson facilely changes characters’ age and gender, their ideology, physical demeanor and accents, switching from outstanding Israeli and Palestinian leaders, politicians, savants, historians, settlers,residents and visitors Hare met and interviewed.
At times, Jackson’s breezy approach segues to fiery personalities. As he strolls from a chair or stool on the slanted, raised floor, we wonder if Hare’s anecdotes may also be slanted.
Hare’s account of two opposing sides - Jewish and Palestinian - is supposed to be well balanced. He’s a Christian married to a Jewish woman, but that doesn’t sway him one way or the other, he says.
“In Israel, people are fighting for something they believe in. In the West here, [we’re accused] of believing in nothing,” he says. He launches into a colorful narration traversing several sites in Israel and nearby. He discusses the likes of Theodor Herzl, a founder of the World Zionist Organization who pushed to establish a Jewish state in Israel.
He rationalizes the need for a Jewish homeland; relates his conversation with award-winning American Jewish novelist Philip Roth, who encouraged him to go to Israel, and with David Grossman, multi-award-winning Israeli author of “To the End of the Land,” a 2008 book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There’s also conflicting discussion about controversial Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He travels to Tel Aviv, discusses Israelis’ commitment to serving in the military, excluding religious Jews who aren’t compelled to serve, and jokes about the sudden upsurge of Jewish religiosity.
An historian traces the significance of the ancient Temple, its destruction and location, as proof of Jewish heritage to the land. More discussions involve former Israeli prime minister-Nobel Peace Prize winner; feminist firebrand Shulamit Aloni; and former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader-proclaimed peacemaker, Yasser Arafat. “There were more prisoners under Arafat than the Israelis,” he cracks.
He ventures on an unsetling, harrowing trip to the Gaza Strip, encountering Israeli border police at checkpoints; dscribes an area of Palestinian filth and desolation; the prevalence of Intifadah; Palestinians’ disillusionment; and their lack of jobs and opportunity.
In Ramadah, a militant Palestinian- “an Anthony Quinn type,” he says - announces, “We’re being strangled”.
Venturing into the settlements, he meets Sara, her husband and six children. Their hope is to get along and live peacefully with their Arab neighbors. Yet, the area is volatile, dangerous, with hatred sizzling. “They want to kill us,” bemoans the settler.
Overlooked and barely mentioned in this struggle is Christians‘ devotion to the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims reverently walk the same cobbled streets Jesus trod to his crucifixion, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, they find little marking their sacred landmarks.
Watching “Via Dolorosa,” I wished I knew more about the State of Israel, its history, background, heroes, and common folk. Critics claim the play is still relevant, yet with that area in perpetual turmoil, I felt lost at times, adrift between the past and present.
BOX INFO: One-act, one person play by David Hare,starring David Bryan Jackson, through Jan. 31, at New Repertory Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Check for post-show talkbacks and symposium.Showtimes, Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday Saturday, 8 p.m.; matinees, Jan. 16,23, at 3 p.m.; Jan. 21,24,31, at 2 p.m.Tickets, $25-$36. Visit www.newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.