There are no happy endings in classic Russian literature, just as there are no happy endings in current-day Gaza, the tightly packed sliver of land on the Mediterranean Sea where 2 million Palestinians vie for normalcy. The reality of life there is much harsher in Mosaic Theater Company’s Washington. premiere of “Ulysses on Bottles,” a compact play that offers the smallest of glimpses into life that is hardly bearable on the Palestinian side of the border, and a life of nearly ignorant bliss on the Israeli side.
The first entry into the 16th year of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, “Ulysses” runs through June 11 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Ulysses, an unofficial moniker for an unnamed Palestinian, finds himself in an Israeli jail after an outlandish attempt to build a raft of plastic water bottles and set sail to Gaza where he intended to deliver boxes of Russian literature — Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Bulgakov.
Israeli playwright Gilad Evron penned the work after one of his sons refused to serve in the army and was jailed. When Evron tried to bring his son books — Russian literary classics — the prison prohibited it. In 2012, the piece received the Israel Theater Prize for best original play; its American debut came three years later.
Director Serge Seiden, Mosaic’s managing director/producer, homes in on individuals in this character-driven play, eschewing clutter on Frida Shoham’s spare stage, colorless and adorned with just a few chairs, a pair of desks and translucent barriers. There the discomfitting story unfolds in 80 minutes, getting to some ugly truths about ideology, privilege and persecution that have infiltrated Israeli society as the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has become the status quo.
Izakov, Ulysses’ Jewish lawyer, proposes the simplest solution to get his client out of jail: agree to never enter Gaza again. An insanity plea is another option. The failed literature teacher, though, refuses both, declaring himself both sane and unrepentant. What could possibly be a problem with shipping in Russian novels, short stories and poems to the populace of Gaza? The answer comes from Israeli government functionary Seinfeld: “So they don’t get the idea that life could be better.”
Seinfeld, a sinister Sarah Marshall, spouts statistics and projections to Izakov about the future of this closed enclave abutting Israel. The doomsday predictions are clear for Gaza, but for Seinfeld — and Izakov — it’s merely maps and charts, Lego pieces and graphs to represent the looming population explosion and attendant epidemics, famines, illiteracy.
An outlandish subplot involves Izakov’s wife, Eden, and her bizarre request that her overworked husband sing wearing a pink tutu at a children’s charitable benefit. Her narcissistic behavior along with junior partner Horesh’s shady dealings, suggest that Israelis live their lives with little to no thought about the hard problems Gazans face.
Izakov (Matthew Boston) is a practical man who knows and respects the law to a fault, but Boston allows him to grow as the relationship between client and lawyer deepens. First it’s a candy bar, then a promise that he’ll lobby for better conditions, as Izakov becomes more attached to his at-times frustrating client.
Michael Kevin Darnall’s Ulysses is the poet at the center of the piece and each time he waxes eloquent, quoting or paraphrasing passages from his beloved Russian authors, the harsh prison lights dim and background music rises, while his posture and voice change. Literature and its remembrance becomes his savior in the stark prison. It’s as if Ulysses is channeling his namesake, the original journeyman and seafarer, better known as Odysseus. He serves as the moral stakeholder in a piece where the crime of promoting literature has become a life sentence. That Ulysses is willing to live and sacrifice his freedom for his convictions so frustrates his lawyer that Izakov scoffs, “Who even reads anymore? The theaters are empty. There are no protest movements … stop being a parody.”
Izakov’s truth is that of a cynic. Horesh’s and Eden’s truths are personal gain. Ulysses’ truth is that of a poet, one whose hopes and dreams are to open hearts and minds of an oppressed people. Books apparently are seen as the enemy by Seinfeld, who represents Israeli society, a shocking conclusion for a state founded by the people of the book, who hold literature and discourse in such high regard.
“Ulysses on Bottles” is a daring and hard-edged allegory written for a nation where both nothing and everything are black and white, good and evil, friend and foe. It unmasks some difficult and uncomfortable truths about the Israeli occupation in Gaza. And Evron provides no answers, just a case study in how to not just look at, but see the other. And that makes this a must for those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.
In fact – aside from Izakov, who evolves — the Israeli characters come off as unforgiving, intolerant, hateful – which will, undoubtedly, make audiences uncomfortable.
Evron died earlier this year at 61 — but his play poses tough questions of his Israeli compatriots. There is no justice for the literature-loving poet Ulysses and, sadly, no peace for either side in this ongoing conflict.
“Ulysses on Bottles,” by Gilad Evron, through June 11, Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington; tickets $40-$60; call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit mosaictheater.org.