Like the politics that sparked Einat Weizman’s “Shame,” and its latest incarnation, “Shame 2.0: (With Comments from the Populace),” it’s complicated. This “world-premiere workshop production” by Mosaic Theater Company, on stage through Feb. 17 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast Washington, deals in ripped-from-the-headlines issues of government censorship and artistic integrity. It features parallel stories of two Israeli actors, the Tel Aviv-born activist/actor/writer Weizman and Palestinian-Israeli actor Morad Hassan. Hassan has come to Washington to play himself, and his winning performance is both wry and bittersweet.
Mosaic Theater Company’s founding director, Ari Roth, is not unfamiliar with censorship. For those who have followed Roth since his lengthy tenure at Theater J ended abruptly in 2014, when the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center cancelled its long-running Voices of a Changing Middle East play festival due to a controversial work, questions of artistic suppression arose then that still rankle some. Roth supporters cried censorship. Roth detractors claimed they were protecting the JCC institution and its audiences from an Israeli drama that depicted a massacre of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 War of Independence. The fall-out was brutal, leaving a divided community.
Out of that confrontation, Mosaic Theater was born.
Thus, it’s no surprise that nearly five years later, Roth is mounting somewhat of a treatise on censorship and public blame and shame.
This stripped-down production won’t dazzle, but it will provoke. It hasn’t been easy taking this new version of Weizman’s work to the American stage, as Roth explained in his director’s note in the program. In fact, it was nearly cancelled.
The story of these two Israeli artist-activists began during the 2014 Gaza War, when the pair were performing in a play at the Arabic-speaking Al Midan Theatre (later seen on Mosaic’s stage as “The Return”). Soon they found themselves at odds with the Israeli government, which withdrew funding from Al Midan and waged an attack on Weizman for her politics and affiliations with a Palestinian prisoner.
“Shame 2.0” takes viewers into this complex drama, beginning with Hassan’s compelling biographical narrative of his life as a Palestinian actor studying and working in Israel’s insular theater world. He lays bare what it feels like to be “othered,” all told, with a wry sense of melancholy and frustration. He did not learn about Arabic playwrights during his acting studies at Haifa University — all the classics were by Israeli writers. After graduating, he faced typecasting, getting cast as Arab thugs or workers.
When he finally earned a lead role in a Shakespearean classic, it’s as Shylock. He notes with bitter irony, “As Palestinians, we are the Jews of the Jews,” before unleashing the always heart-wrenching monologue, “Has not a Jew eyes ….”
Weizman, an Israeli television and theater actress, encountered trouble when she was photographed wearing a t-shirt with the Palestinian flag — a sartorial choice, she noted, not a political one. (Though in Israel, it’s hard not to question that logic.) The snapshot was shared over and over on social media. Even a decade later it still haunts her. At Mosaic, D.C. actor Colleen Delany plays Weizman not as a firebrand, but as a put-upon privileged white woman, lips pursed, eyes beseeching.
This is activist-oriented theater and Delaney demands the audience to become a part of the play — at least willing volunteers who are asked to read quotes from thousands of screed-filled Facebook and Twitter posts calling for Weizman’s harm, her death or at least misfortune. The language is harsh and unrelenting and Delany perches at the edge of the stage and lets the unforgiving words wash over her. Shame, indeed.
Interspersed between these two separate — yet parallel tales — the play’s villain, Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, is seen on the screen in video news clips and on stage as portrayed by Lynette Rathnam. Regev is relentless in her push to pass the “Loyalty in Culture Law,” aimed at left-wing and non-mainstream artists. It withdraws government funding (in an arts culture that gets much less in private contributions) from any artistic product, which is deemed to deny the existence of Israel, incite violence or terror, mark Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning, or destroy or degrade the Jewish state’s flag or emblem. Artists like Hassan and Weizman are prime targets.
The naturalistic realism of the performers, under the direction of John Vreeke, gives the 85-minute evening a docudrama sensibility, particularly with the well-curated collage of projections and video clips designed by Dylan Uremovich that bring the headlines, soundbites and images of the conflict to the stage.
As theater “Shame 2.0” is still finding its way. The most affecting performance — Hassan’s — could well become a singular evening of his experience growing up Palestinian amid an Israeli majority. The other threads of this gritty polemic need further finetuning to bring coherence to a story that continues to evolve as quickly as the daily headlines.
“Shame 2.0 (With Comments from the Populace),” through Feb. 17, Mosaic Theater Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington; tickets $20-$65; visit mosaictheater.org.