Director Ami Dayan doesn’t want to start a rumble. Launching a New York production after a (relatively) small-town success in Boulder, Colo., is already enough of a campaign; he has nothing to gain from starting a ruckus, as well. So Dayan’s approach to the current remount of “Masked”— a play about Palestinians, written by Israeli Jew Ilan Hatsor — is one of resolute calm.
But New York has a habit of picking fights, especially when the play in question pokes the open sore of the West Bank conflict. When New York Theater Workshop postponed “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” which some claim valorizes an anti-settlement activist, the theater’s overly careful attitude toward its Jewish audience incensed the show’s originators and left NYTW reeling from accusations of bias. Artistic director Jim Nicola rigorously avoids talking about the debacle, but NYTW’s subsequent seasons have been as eloquent as a white flag of surrender. Still, the DR2, a small theater near Union Square where “Masked” recently embarked on an open run, has sent its contextualization machine into hyperdrive. A full roster of talkbacks and discussions, called Urgent Conversations, follow almost every performance of “Masked,” although, tellingly, the panels tend to alternate between Jewish and Palestinian participants rather than seating them together on the dais.
The production has nothing to fear. Yes, during the Boulder staging, Dayan did face some fussing from both the far left and the far right — “Most people just float in the middle, and don’t care,” he says — but after the protesters saw the show, he garnered mostly kudos. Some funders have elected to sit this one out, waiting instead for Dayan’s next show, which deals with a Jew facing down the Spanish Inquisition. And after Dayan’s first New York preview, a Jewish audience member asked him: “Why not tell our story? Why tell theirs?” But Dayan points out that there is no shortage of artistic works told from the Israeli perspective, and clearly the show managed to find monies elsewhere.
So it seems, for once, everyone is keeping a cool head — stimulated, perhaps, by the work itself. The piece betrays its origins: Hatsor, now successfully writing social comedies for the major repertories in Israel, wrote “Masked” in 1991, during his first year as a directing student. As with many first plays, you can see the bones beneath the skin; it adheres tightly to the Aristotelian unities, and it recalls the mathematical working through of possibilities we find when studying Sophocles and Ibsen. That clarity, crucially, manages to counter the situation’s hysterical pitch of terror and accusation; it allows the protagonists to lose their composure, while we keep a firm handle on ours.
Three Palestinian brothers — the eldest a family man, the middle one a full-fledged guerilla and the youngest hoping to earn his place in the first intifada — watch their family fray under the serrated edge of occupation. Somewhere in the village, an informer has been working with the Israelis, and suspicion has wormed its way into their midst. While trapped after curfew in a slaughter room at a halal butchery, the brothers stalk one another, their fraternal bonds snapping one by one. It isn’t the first time that a writer has symbolized the Middle East as an abattoir, but using the butcher’s room — blood still splashed on the walls — reminds the audience of how both Arabs and Jews signal their separateness according to similarly strict rules about slaughter. It also, without ever requiring a change of scenery, recalls the claustrophobia of the Middle East, with its minuscule countries vying for limited space. As the brothers prowl about and beat the doors, we see why tempers in the Levant never have the space to cool.
Despite its subject matter, neither Dayan nor Hatsor seems interested in making “Masked” into political theater. They pooh-pooh any controversy, and insist on their shared loathing for polemic. Certainly, neither side can get too hepped up about the content: Even in the early 1990s, the descriptions of intrusive Israeli army tactics were common knowledge, and the portrait of a fractured Palestinian movement surprises no one who has read newspaper dispatches from Gaza.
Plus, pinning down either Dayan or Hatsor on his political position is like trying to hug a greased cat. Hatsor admits to having changed since he wrote the play . The intervening crises have ground away his youthful optimism, and when pressed, Dayan (a cousin of the late Moshe Dayan) will say: “Of course I take a side! I’m Israeli! I read Ha’aretz every day!” Neither proposes solutions to the ugliness in the occupied territories, and neither considers himself a radical. Both assert that the play isn’t diagnostic, that it takes its power from the universality of occupied behavior (Hatsor points to Iraq; Dayan to the former Yugoslavia).
But the play can still shock those who know it best. Since its debut, “Masked” has appeared in dozens of countries, translated into dozens of languages. Despite having seen many of these productions, Hatsor says that when he saw it translated into Arabic, he got a nasty jolt. “Seeing these people saying these things in Arabic… these are not the kind of people you wish to meet,” he said. But, of course, that’s precisely what his play does. It introduces us to people we have rigorously avoided, and it forces us to listen to their entire conversation. So if protesters are already winding up for an impassioned editorial, damning these Israelis for daring to represent the “other side,” all Hatsor and Dayan ask is, see the show first.