Few topics today generate ill feelings like the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. With Theater for the New City's sometimes too ethereal remounting of Misha Shulman's Desert Sunrise, a proposal is made for a peaceful Holy Land in a play that uses grand spectacle and expressionistic techniques to communicate its ideas. But these tactics, though mesmerizing, come perilously close to swallowing up the story and its characters. In the southern deserts of Hebron, a cave-dwelling Palestinian gives temporary refuge to a lost Israeli. The men overcome their initial animosity by relating over the common elements in their lives: parents, work, music, and women. Especially women. Ismail's beloved is on her way to the campsite, and Tsahi's adulterous girlfriend has recently left him. When Ismail tells Tsahi he is planning to propose to Layla when she arrives, the men undertake an impromptu dance lesson. They are dancing when Layla shows up, and she is mortified to see her Palestinian lover dancing with an Israeli.
Layla proves to be less hospitable to Tsahi, but eventually they too connect over the mutual losses they have suffered in the conflict between their peoples. Soon, however, gunshots in the distance warn us that Israeli soldiers may have followed Layla to Ismail's encampment.
The three principals carry the weight of the play's subject matter well and don't shy away from the black comedy that it sometimes calls for. At one point, the two men enter into a morbid discussion of whose blood is the "cheapest" to Americans: Palestinian or Israeli. They eventually agree that Iraqi blood is the cheapest.
Haythem Noor's Ismail is a stalwart character of calm and gentleness; you believe he is a guy who hangs out with sheep all day. Jared Miller's Tsahi is equally melancholy and jubilant. Boisterous and quick to become emotional, Miller takes great care in recounting the tragic story of his character's life without flattening it into one note of sadness. And Alice Borman's Layla is a complex and masterful creation, both seductive and dangerous.
As playwright and director, Shulman is to be commended for bringing back this work after a successful run at Theater for the New City in 2005. A former Israeli communications unit commander, he presents a view of the conflict that is well grounded and unbiased. Neither side is glorified or demonized, and the characters are able to make choices as human beings rather than stereotypes.
Shulman urges audiences to look beyond the current situation to a better world, which is represented as a spiritual realm that we see in silhouette across a rear scrim. On its own, this shadow ballet serves as a bountiful representation of the Middle Eastern world, with animals and allegories that relate to the modern predicament. However, these spirited renderings threaten to overwhelm the story line and sometimes detract from the characters' interactions.
Dalia Carella's choreography consists of one- or two-person veil dances. Combining Arabic dance with Indonesian shadow technique and shadow puppetry, she presents many dazzling images on the scrim. Particularly striking are two birds of prey fighting over a small mammal, an obvious metaphor for the conflict over Jerusalem. These dances exist well within the barren elements of Celia Owen's set design. Covering the stage floor with sand suggests miles of empty land, and it is believable that Tsahi could become lost in this setting.
Along with his soulful score, musician Yoel Ben-Simhon "narrates" the play with interjected odes, originally intended for a chorus, that Shulman adapted from Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Unfortunately, this classical text doesn't always mirror the modern scenario as it should, and it remains unclear if these lyrical words are supposed to be the "inner voices" of the characters or some all-seeing god or both. The ambiguity only serves to confuse the audience.
Itai Erdal's lighting design, like the script, sometimes opts for otherworldly impressionism instead of naturalistic lighting; the only difference between day and night is an unfocused gobo of stars and a projection of the moon. It also feels like a missed opportunity that there isn't a representation of a sunrise in Sunrise.
The most regrettable of the piece's few missteps is at the end, where Layla meanders into the elevated language that is usually reserved for Ben-Simhon's narrator. It is hard to tell if she is praying or speaking to the audience, because the other characters seem to be able to hear her. This divergence in style leads to the play's emotional climax, where a chilling revelation is presented too hastily and is subsequently lost in the language of the ode.
Beyond these uneven points of style and design, however, it is difficult to criticize a work that seeks to educate theatergoers about things like Ta'ayush, the grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peace group Shulman belongs to. At best, this production is daring and provocative, even darkly humorous, in its exploration of a tragic and bloody dispute over territory. Shulman, Theater for the New City, and Ta'ayush demand education and humanity. The question remains whether their ideas will prove more significant than bullets. Desert Sunrise doesn't offer any easy answers.