February 12, 2003

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God's country
David Hare's Via Dolorosa illuminates the conflicts and contacts in the Middle East.

By Robert Avila

IF BRITISH PLAYWRIGHT David Hare's bold foray into first-person political theater, Via Dolorosa, ever suffers from the built-in obsolescence of topicality, that day is a long way off. That's because its subject, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tragically endures. The intervening years since the play's debut in 1998 on London and then Broadway stages have only layered it with an unanticipated prescience and lent it the virtue of having been composed during what with hindsight looks like the relative calm before the storm, when many different voices seemed to speak more or less openly about what was going on and why. The play recounts the author's visits in 1997 with leading Jewish and Arab intellectuals, artists, and politicians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, as well as with a family of Israelis. Originally intending to research a play about the British Mandate, the immediate circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moved Hare to reconceive his project. He settled on a 90-minute monologue, "ideally to be performed by its author" (an admitted novice as an actor), as the most appropriate, least mediated way of "theatrically" treating what he found.

TheatreFirst's discussion-provoking production, with actor Simon Vance in the role of Hare and staged in a succession of both Muslim and Jewish venues, further testifies to Via Dolorosa's viability as political theater. This isn't agitprop, however. Hare's decidedly evenhanded, honest, and unpretentious investigation leads away from pat political formulas. We don't follow him to the revolution or even to a resolution. Instead his openness – his willingness to be himself and also a good reporter – sympathizes with multiple perspectives, hinting at points of contact rather than at a solution on the horizon. At the same time, Hare the playwright proves willing to entertain as well as instruct.

Tellingly, the fascinating meetings recounted reflect deep divisions within, as much as between, Jewish and Palestinian society. The theme of displacement mushrooms, and our itinerant narrator becomes one among many incongruities on the landscape: the brilliant Palestinian politician Haider Abdel Shafi in the siegelike atmosphere of Gaza, decrying the sham of the "peace process" while insisting "Our most urgent task is to reform ourselves"; the coldly intellectual Benni Begin telling Hare "The only hope now is the passage of time," but adding, "It won't work out"; the fiery but generous Shulamit Aloni, formerly Yitzhak Rabin's associate, whose warnings about manipulating people's fears to legitimize the most destructive forces sound frighteningly prophetic; the conspiracy-driven settler family, American transplants in militarily fortified "Spielberg" suburbs in the middle of Arab land; the Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin, who likens the Jewish escape from Europe to Palestine to a man who jumps out of a burning building onto the neck of a passerby; the Palestinian theater producer George Ibrahim who tells Hare "You [Westerners] collect your religion from this part of the world, and you bring it back to us as violence"; and Israeli novelist David Grossman, who denounces the materialism that values objects over ideas, possessions over people, with a phrase Hare will hear elsewhere – "It's un-Jewish."

If Via Dolorosa already resembles a relaxed lecture more than a play, director Clive Chafer's doing away with any stage design (beyond Don Bialik's basic lighting scheme) strengthens this effect. Chafer's decision may have been a practical one for a roaming production, but it's also wise. The story and the storyteller are all-important and should come across as genuine and not overly theatrical. Often the mere details speak for themselves. The fact that the overcrowded inhabitants of Gaza earn 8 percent of their counterparts' wages in Israel, for example, provoked audible gasps. And while an actor plays Hare, Vance, an Englishman about Hare's age, smoothly fits into the role. Only his instinct for characterization (and a tendency to homogenize the accents of Arabs and Jews into a single "foreign" lilt) proves a bit distracting. The play's self-consciously personal construction means the actor can lose the audience by veering too far toward rendering distinct characters and away from the single character of Hare regaling us with impersonations.

After all, Hare manages to be an ideal guide by virtue of his (and our) "outsider" status – he's out of place in Israel, in Palestine, even "onstage," performing. In a part of the world where, as he puts it, people still "believe in something" (as opposed to the "shallow lives" lived in the moribund culture of the West), his distance allows us room to breathe and reflect. Nevertheless, there are subtle connections for him as well as for us. In particular, his own Christian culture represents a point of departure and retreat. The play's title comes from the winding path in Jerusalem walked by Christ and traced today by gift shops and countless tourists, Hare included. After an exhausting and exhilarating tour through this disputed land, our guide notes with no small irony Via Dolorosa's termination at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, "unhappily" fractioned off between competing branches of this supposedly ecumenical body. "Sects and the single Church," Hare quips with some bitterness.

These divisions point us homeward, where questions of belief and power turn out to be as complex as anything in the Middle East. Fast-forward to Hare on the openDemocracy Web site under the welter of current events: "I cannot understand a species of Christian zealotry prevailing in the White House which seeks only to prioritize the strong over the weak and the rich over the poor – an exact reversal of Christ's stated mission on earth." It's simply un-Christian, isn't it?

'Via Dolorosa' plays Thurs/13-Sat/15, 8 p.m.; Sun/16, 3:30 p.m., Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut, Berk; Feb. 21-22, 8 p.m.; Feb. 23, 3 p.m., A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, S.F. $5-$19. (510) 436-5085.