Is ‘Ulysses’ a political play? How could it not be?
BOSTON — A friend of mine who has been to Israel several times and is a strong supporter of the Jewish state recently saw the Israeli Stage production of “Ulysses on Bottles,” being produced under the auspices of Arts Emerson at the Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Theatre.
“The writer of the piece (Gilad Evron) said it isn’t political but I disagree,” he said. “The security character is clearly political,” he said, referring to the character of Seinfeld, played by Will Lyman.
Just writing about or talking about what’s going on in the Middle East is a political act of sorts. We all approach it differently or are affected by events in the Middle East differently, so how you see “Ulysses on Bottles” — the first fully-realized production by Boston-based Israeli Stage — may be affected by your attitude going in about Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Gilad Evron’s play won Israel Theater Prize’s Best Original Play in 2012 and is having its American premiere at the Paramount, directed by 25-year-old Guy Ben-Aharon.
The acting is just fine, as it should be when you’re talking such local stalwarts such as Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel, Karen MacDonald, Daniel Berger-Jones and Ken Cheeseman, but there are pieces of the work that serve as distractions from the main theme and that’s significant when you’re talking about a 75-minute piece.
Cheeseman is an Israeli-Arab former literature teacher who decides that what the residents of the Gaza Strip need is literature — and not just any literature, very specifically Russian literature.
And his method for delivering it is unique — a raft made of plastic bottles, which he uses to try trying to sail into Gaza in defiance of the Israeli blockade.
But the Israeli authorities arrest the man they nickname “Ulysses” after the epic hero for attempting to conspire with the enemy, and so the teacher finds himself in a jail cell, with a Jewish-Israel lawyer named Saul Izakoff (Kissel) representing him pro bono.
Saul has managed to arrange a deal that will see Ulysses released if he agrees not to try and return to Gaza. He points to mitigating factors that would help: Ulysses lost his job and had a disabled son who choked to death at age 6. But Ulysses has no stomach for such a deal.
Lyman is Seinfeld, an Israeli security official who deems Ulysses dangerous. Saul finds himself in an ethical dilemma as he advises Seinfeld on how to abide by the law allowing food shipments into Gaza while still allowing in the minimum amount possible.
And while Saul is doing pro bono work with a conscience, the ambitious young lawyer Horesh (Berger-Jones) is bringing in large amount of revenue for the firm from questionable clients and muscling his way into becoming a senior partner.
There’s a puzzling subplot involving MacDonald as Saul’s wife Eden, who continually badgers him about donning a pink dress to perform at a charity event for disabled children, all in the midst the issues facing Saul.
After doing six months in jail and as he is set to be released, Saul tells Ulysses he has been sentenced to additional time in jail because Israel officials are worried he will return to Gaza.
In an ominous moment during a meeting between Seinfeld and Ulysses, Seinfeld watches Ulysses sketch a glider. He warns him “If you soar into Gaza, I’ll have to shoot you.”
“Ulysses” is yet another showcase for the talents of Kissel, and Cheeseman — who had fine recent turns in diverse pieces such as “Ether Dome” and “The King of Second Avenue” — is right there with him as Ulysses.
Lyman brings the required sense of dread and menace as Seinfeld, Berger-Jones is appropriately oily as Horesh, and I haven’t figured out yet why MacDonald is here, although she does her very best with a thankless part.
I can’t say my friend was right or wrong. In the Middle East, everything is political. Through his characters, Evron has pointed out problems that arise when personal freedoms meet political restrictions.
The Israel Stage production of “Ulysses on Bottles.“ Play by Gilad Evron, translated by Evan Fallenberg Directed by: Guy Ben-Aharon. Set, Ron De Marco. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Lights, Scott Pinkney. Sound, David Remedios. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At: Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, through April 25. Tickets: $25-$49, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org